It’s easy to move an audience with beautiful images. They’re everywhere, and there’s an army of talented cinematographers dying to shoot them with an expensive array of space-age cameras and lenses. A merely pretty film isn’t noteworthy these days.
What’s difficult is to match amazing images with a story worthy of them. That’s the dilemma faced by the makers of All the Pretty Horses, the new film version of Cormac McCarthy’s sweeping, stoic novel about kids getting into trouble in 1950s Mexico.
McCarthy’s story, when stripped of his idiosyncratic prose and the long, studied pauses of a novel, turns out to be rather dull. It isn’t much of a companion to the lovingly photographed Western scenery in which we watch it unfold. If you see this film, see it for the view.
Director Billy Bob Thornton—you know, the anorexic, four-times-divorced husband of Angelina Jolie—and cinematographer Barry Markowitz have photographed a beautiful, cleverly planned Western. They’re selling atmosphere here, and it’s a pre-packaged, polished, coffee-table-book marvel. Thornton’s original cut of the film stretched to nearly four hours, and it’s not difficult to imagine him languorously torturing every last picture-postcard image out of his movie.
The story begins in west Texas in the late 1940s. John Grady Cole (Matt Damon, playing a character who was 16 in the novel) leaves the family ranch before it’s sold to an oil company. With his childhood buddy Lacey Rawlins (Henry Thomas), he heads south to Mexico for a life of roping, spitting and becoming very good friends with livestock.
But just before they cross the Rio Grande, they happen upon trouble in the form of Blevins (Lucas Black, very good), an even younger kid on the run from an abusive stepfather. After an incident involving horse-stealing and a guy riding a horse in his boxers, Cole and Rawlins manage to get jobs at a posh ranch. The ranch is owned by a Mexican bigwig (Ruben Blades, a Panamanian) with a daughter (Penelope Cruz, a Spaniard) who casts enough longing glances at Cole to fill an aisle at Hallmark.
There’s more trouble, of course, but it’s nothing you wouldn’t find in a standard melodrama of any vintage. You can feel the film straining for significance, for a story to match its pictures and colors. While McCarthy’s tale plays well as a profoundly gloomy, fearful novel—and while the story probably got its just due in the four-hour version—it feels pinched, episodic and somewhat joyless here.
The film wants to be an epic, but it feels more like those misbegotten, uninvolving historical dramas (Legends of the Fall, for example) that were all the rage a few years ago. Thornton and screenwriter Ted Tally obviously loved the novel, and they don’t want to re-imagine it so much as replicate its feel and mood. Damon’s face-value performance helps, though his romance with Cruz doesn’t really bite. Black is the star in a supporting role; his off-balance performance throws some spice into an otherwise thin mix.
The editing truncations also lead to some baffling sections: Cole is thrown in a Mexican prison one day for mysterious reasons, and he’s released minutes later under even more confusing circumstances. How he got in, how he got out, whether a key supporting character is alive or dead—we can’t tell any of these things.
Though All the Pretty Horses is profoundly melancholy, it should have been even darker. McCarthy’s novel rings with decades of American-Mexican tensions and a very sad longing for a return to the untamed wilderness, but the film can’t do much more than rub up against these ideas. Until the four-hour DVD comes out, we’ll have to reserve judgment on the quality of work Thornton has done here.
All the Pretty Horses (PG-13) HH1/2 Directed by Billy Bob Thornton. Starring Matt Damon, Henry Thomas and Penelope Cruz.