The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

All the Pretty Horses

If I had to sit down and make a list of my top 10 or 20 favorite movies, it's a safe bet that about half of them would be westerns in one form or another.  Most of those are typical westerns, stories set between the end of the Civil War and through the first 10 or 15 years of the 20th century.  A smaller class of westerns is the modern western, movies like Lonely Are the Brave, Hud, Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada and Brokeback Mountain -- among many others.  Maybe because these aren't based in the romantic old west there aren't as many, but an example of a good one is 2000's All the Pretty Horses.

Based on a Cormac McCarthy novel, it is a story of what the west used to be and longing to be a part of it.  It is an interesting movie because it tries to be a western of the 1960s and at the same time is an anti-western, playing against many of the genre's tendencies.  McCarthy's novel is an interesting read, but one that I questioned how it would be translated to the screen in the same way I wondered about The Road.  Dialogue is sparse, imagery is heavy, and parts of the storyline demand audiences to make conclusions on their own.  If that's not a recipe for success at the box office, I don't know what is.  Making it worse, director Billy Bob Thornton turned in a finish cut somewhere between 3-4 hours only to have it cut down to 2 hours.  A good jumping off point if there ever was one. 

It's 1949 in San Angelo, Texas not far from the Rio Grande and the U.S./Mexico border.  Young John Grady Cole (Matt Damon) and childhood friend Lacey Rawlins (Henry Thomas) decide to mount up one day and ride south into Mexico.  They don't have a goal or destination in mind, they just want to see what life offers.  Along the way, they meet a 12 or 13 year old kid, Jimmy Blevins (Lucas Black) riding a horse he claims is his, but John and Lacey remain suspicious, especially Rawlins who says they should leave him behind.  Both with some experience as cowboys, Cole and Rawlins find work at a Mexican ranch owned by Hector de la Rocha (Ruben Blades), a very rich, very powerful man.  Cole immediately falls for Rocha's daughter Alejandra (Penelope Cruz), but that's just the start of their problems as Blevins pops up one more time.

First off, any movie that is cut by an hour-plus is almost doomed to struggle in its storytelling.  A 3-hour version seems appropriate having read the book to really dive into the characters, the setting, and the story.  McCarthy's novel itself is episodic, never staying in one place too long before moving on.  The movie is the same way, but each of these smaller episodes isn't given enough time to breath and develop -- something I'd most likely attribute to those studio-forced cuts.  It's a road picture and a buddy movie (without the laughs) that is also a mystery, a romance, and a prison movie.  Try fitting all that into two hours and you get a somewhat disjointed story that understandably can be a little confusing.

Where the movie does succeed is in the visuals and the casting.  Working with cinematographer Barry Markowitz, Thornton makes the Texas border country and Northern Mexico (Texas and New Mexico locations) a treat to look at.  Anyone who thinks Texas is one big desert should watch this movie and then reevaluate their opinion.  The camerawork is full of color and shots that drift just long enough to let you take all the scenery in.  There was also apparently a dust-up about the musical score, but the one that made it to the final cut is a perfect fit, full of Mexican-themed guitar and a softness and intimacy to it that is about as soothing as a score can be.  Some critics complained that the cinematography and music was too self-indulgent, but I loved both aspects in giving the movie a deeper level.

Even though he was 30 years old making the movie, Damon still looks to be about 15, maybe 20 here, which is appropriate because his character is about to turn 20 years old.  I've always been a fan of Damon, and this part is a good example of his on-screen persona.  He does a good job inhabiting these characters without taking over the movie.  His Cole is likable, honest, loyal, and a good friend even when it'd be easier to turn tail and run.  With Thomas, he has a good, easy-going chemistry that two longtime friends would have.  Black is a scene-stealer as Blevins, I just wish he was in the movie more (I had the same request in the book).  Cruz -- besides being drop dead gorgeous -- makes the most of an underwritten part that requires her to look good.  Too bad because her Alejandra in the book is much more developed.

The supporting cast is beyond solid, especially Blades as ranch owner Rocha, a man who bonds with Damon's Cole through their love of horses.  Miriam Colon delivers in a quick two or three scenes as Alejandra's aunt looking out for her best interest. Julio Oscar Mechoso is perfectly evil as a Mexican captain of police, so subtle in his ways he doesn't come across as evil until you really listen to him.  Also making one or two scene appearances are Robert Patrick as Cole's father, Sam Shepard as J.C. Franklin, his lawyer, and Bruce Dern as a judge looking for the truth in Cole's adventures and misadventures.

This is a movie that certainly isn't for everyone, but I would recommend reading McCarthy's novel before checking it out.  It tends to explain things a little more smoothly and fills in some of the pieces that the movie was missing.  Of course, it's hard to fault Thornton in his directing.  Maybe his original version showed and explained these things I've brought up.  Hopefully so and there's a director's cut floating around out there somewhere.  Until then, at least check the novel out and give this maligned modern western a try.

All the Pretty Horses <----fan-made trailer (2000): ***/****

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