PRETTY HORSES (director:
Billy Bob Thornton; screenwriters: Ted Tally/ based on
the novel by Cormac McCarthy; cinematographer: Barry
Markowitz; editor: Sally Menke; cast: Matt Damon (John
Grady Cole), Henry Thomas (Lacey Rawlins), Lucas Black
(Jimmy Blevins), Penélope Cruz (Alejandra), Rubén
Blades (Rocha), Robert Patrick (Cole), Julio Oscar
Mechoso (Captain), Miriam Colon (Alfonsa), Bruce Dern
(Judge), Julio Oscar Mechoso (Captain), Sam Shepard
(J. C. Franklin); Runtime: 112; Miramax Films/Columbia
"For a slow moving film, there was the contradiction of scenes happening too fast to be developed and fully realized."
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
A modern day Western adapted from Cormac McCarthy's National Book Award-winning novel of 1992, which was accurately transferred to film by Ted Tally's script. It kept the same laconic cowboy dialogue from the book intact but was reduced to under two hours from the over three hour length by director Billy Bob Thornton, the length the people from Miramax wanted it to be. It was hard to tell if the film was missing anything because of this deletion since I didn't read the book. But there were too many scenes that failed to go anywhere, making the film dull at times. For a slow moving film, there was the contradiction of scenes happening too fast to be developed and fully realized. As a result "All the Pretty Horses" failed to be engaging, despite how well it looked.
If the filmmaker was aiming for an epic, he sure didn't get it in this sometimes elegaic film. What he got is something that plays more like a slick magazine photo shoot on the travails of being a cowboy, or as a touristy travelogue of what the Old West was like, or as a stylish film that can't find what it wants to say and stumbles around with a prosaic story about youthful aspirations. What it lacked was some emotional kick, as the scenes where the cowboys show off their spirited exuberance seemed more portentous than not and just didn't jive with the unsure pace of the film.
What caught my attention in a positive way was how pretty the picturesque vistas were and how the film gave off some good cowboy vibes about friendship and loyalty and had some good cowboy lingo to go along with all the pretty horses and with the hot-blooded senorita played by Penélope Cruz, who gave the film an attractive foreign star to hang its Hollywood cowboy hat on.
The film opens in San Angelo, Texas, in 1949, where John Grady Cole's (Matt Damon) grandfather has just died, leaving the big-spread ranch John was born on to his remarried mother. John's real dad has dropped out of sight after leaving the ranch to his ex-wife. To John's bitter disappointment, his mother is selling the ranch to an oil company because she has no interest in it or in him. Since the young man's entire life experience is ranching and his future has just gone up in a cloud of dust, he feels he has no choice but to leave the area. He goes with his loyal sidekick Lacey Rawlins (Henry Thomas) to Mexico to look for ranch work, because that's where the pretty horses are and he can fulfill his fantasy about being a real cowboy there.
It becomes an on-the-trail film, with a love story and a revenge story filling in the life of the youthful cowboy drifters. The pardners motto is stated by John Grady after they cross the Rio Grande and enter Mexico: He tells the 'doubting' Lacey "stick or quit." And, he further states: "How I was is how I am, and all I know is to stick." Now that's some wicked cowboy talk 'pardner!'
The first danger sign for the two cowboys comes by way of meeting on the trail Jimmy Blevins (Lucas Black), who says he is 16 and is running away from his mean stepfather. They sense that his presence means trouble. That he is riding a horse the cowboys think is too good for him. I found him to be the most interesting one in the film. He adds his childish stubborness, volatility, homespun humor, tough backbone, silly superstitions about thunder and brings with him the hard-luck of someone who never had a chance in this world. He gives this complacent film, seemingly, so self-satisfied with its boring story, a chance to become energized by his maverick portrayal. When Blevens is onscreen, the shallowness of the story doesn't seem to matter because his coming-of-age story is better than John Grady's.
The kid somehow loses his pretty horse and gun, his two most valuable possessions. He takes back his horse and later takes back by force his gun from the Mexican who stole it. The kid winds up in a Mexican jail for murdering him. When the kid is out of the picture, the story starts to drag. The film then turns its attention to Matt Damon's coming-of-age story; he and Lacey rode away from Blevins after he got back his horse, realizing the kid is reckless and could take them down with him. They ride aimlessly into Mexico until they land jobs as ranch hands. John Grady becomes a wild mustang tamer and a lover of the sexy Alejandra (Penelope Cruz), the daughter of the wealthy Mexican rancher (Blades) and horse breeder he works for. He forms an awkward father-son relationship with him, as he counsels the ranch owner on what horses to breed (the irony being that the rancher accepts what he says about horses, but rejects him for his daughter).
Mexico becomes for John Grady a place of adventure and romance; but, the romance never set off any sparks between him and Cruz, even if it's love at first sight, as they scope each other out and though the two keep telling each other how much they are in love; yet, in this case, seeing is believing...and I'm not believing what I can't see.
The story plays like a routine melodrama, of the aristocratic father and the protective aunt (Miriam Colon) working to break up the romance to protect the girl's honor. The law comes after the two cowboys for being with Blevins, after the aunt and the ranch owner rat them out to the authorities. They are confined unfairly in a corrupt Mexican jail and abused by the cruel police captain (Mechoso) who tortures Blevins before taking him out to be shot, and they are transferred to a slovenly penitentiary which held some of the most unbelievable scenes yet. John Grady gets into a staged knife fight in the prison mess hall with a convict and there isn't a single prison guard in sight, if you can believe that.
There might have been a good picture in this tale, but it just never kicked in. Everything felt choppy and not certain of the direction it was going in. The star-crossed lovers had no depth or sense of urgency in their lustful romance and the film spent so much time trying to tie up all the loose ends about the romance, and yet it had nothing much to say about it. The revenge tale of going after the Mexican lawman who did them wrong, was also thinly played out and had no teeth in its emotional outbursts. Though the buddy story was well-played out between Damon and Thomas, as Damon showed that he could be expressive and wear his changing feelings in a credible way. His problem was even though he could physically do the cowboy role, I was never convinced that he actually was one. But the most disheartening thing about this film was how out of whack it seemed, as the story had no staying power. It kept going off the trail, until it looked more like a Marlboro billboard commercial than an enriching story of two decent young men living out their dream to be cowboys. Something must have gotten lost in adapting the book to film, because I couldn't find where the heartfelt story was in all the superficiality I was surrounded by. The real star of this film was the landscape, I couldn't take my eyes off it. I think Penélope Cruz can act (at least she can in an Almodovar film), but in this film she's around only as part of the beautiful scenery. I know Matt Damon can act and he shows in this film that he can let us look inside him, but I don't think he was up to being the romantic lead. Overall the film lacked a psychological breath to get us more involved in the characters. The filmmaker only accomplished showing us simple things, things we already knew, like Mexico's justice system is corrupt and theTexas judicial system is fair (Ummm!). After his harrowing experience in Mexico, Matt Damon feels so comfortable with the Texas judicial system that he has a heart-to-heart talk with a kind-hearted judge (Dern). After seeing that, I didn't know whether to laugh or cry.
REVIEWED ON 1/19/2001 GRADE: C
Dennis Schwartz: "Ozus' World Movie Reviews"
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