All the Pretty Horses (2006): Billy Bob Thornton Disappointing Western

Hollywood’s cynics are dismissing Billy Bob Thornton’s Western, All the Pretty Horses, as a kind of The Hi-Lo Country, Stephen Frears’ 1998 failure, starring Penelope Cruz, who’s also in the new picture.

The comparison is unfair: While All Pretty Horses is not an exciting epic, or even a forceful rendition of Cormac McCarthy’s cherished novel, it has sufficient merits to warrant a look.

A protracted, well-publicized post-production forced Miramax to share expenses with Sony (which is releasing internationally) and to repeatedly reschedule the film’s opening. As always, the delays brewed nasty rumors, primary of which was that Thornton couldn’t trim his three-hour-plus cut down to a releasable length; running time is 117 minutes. As it stands now, Pretty Horses is a problematic, flawed film, one that’s easier to evaluate by its intent rather than execution. What went wrong

For starters, All the Pretty Horses, the first volume of McCarthy’s Border Trilogy, has developed a loyal, passionate following. Fans of the novel have complained all along about the casting of Matt Damon as John Grady Cole, the last, vagabond cowboy in a long line of Texas ranchers, a role that was first assigned to Leonardo DiCaprio (whose $15 million price-tag was too high), then to Brad Pitt, who was also too demanding.

The film is meant to be a sweeping odyssey about a young man’s encounters with love, revenge and survival–in other words, another classic coming-of-age Americana. It’s post-WWII, and the beloved Texas land, where Cole grew up has been altered by highways bisecting the plains and by a new way of life that sneers at the traditions of honor. Upon the divorce of his parents, his grandfather’s death, and the loss of his inheritance, Cole sets out in search of a new life. He knows that to fulfill his fantasy, he needs to head for a place where cowboy dreams still exist. He rounds up his pal, Lacey Rawlins (Henry Thomas), and sets off for the Rio Grande, a place free of highways, fences, and civilization, where horses still run wild.

As they make their way towards the Rio Grande–the mythic land of John Ford-John Wayne Westerns–they cross paths with a volatile misfit (Lucas Black), an encounter that precipitates troubles with the Mexican law. The love interest is provided by Alejandra (Cruz), the beautiful daughter of a wealthy Mexican landowner who’s raised by her feisty and rigid aunt. Inner-directed man in the manner of all American cowboys–remember Cooper’s motto, a man’s got to do what a man’s got to do–Cole follows his heart’s wild dictate and pursues her.

At its core, McCarthy’s tale was an examination of a young man’s maturation amidst harsh, fast-changing world. As an elegiac tale of dispossession, it centered on a boy who loses not only his home and family, but also his dream. Cole’s expansive, evocative transformation was conveyed in the book in intense, heart-wrenching terms. Employing voice-over narration, Ted Tally’s script captures the essence of the novel’s visceral language, its spare and poetic monologues, delivered in a raw, unpunctuated but soaring mode.

Thornton showed talent in directing the intense, intimately-scale of The Sling Blade, but he strains in translating the book to an epic Western a la George Stevens’ Giant, based on Edna Ferber’s sprawling novel and also dealing with two generations of Texan ranchers. Thornton seems unable to dramatize in a satisfyingly visual manner Cole’s odyssey from innocence to experience, from childish games to jeopardizing his life for love, from primal revenge to acting with honor–and paying heavy price for that honor.

Watching this fractured, often lethargic saga, you find yourself craving for a sweeping John Ford shot of the awesome landscape, for the insightful physical observation that made Giant a lyrical masterpiece. Thornton gets the intimate details and relationships all right, but misses on the epic scale, on showing the impact of the land’s raw physicality–the Mexican badlands–on Cole’s persona. In the helmer’s defense, the film’s lack of a consistent visual style could be a function of the extensive cuts.

Just as intriguing in the book, but again missing from the film, was the theme of a boy searching for approval and support with no parental figure to turn to. This is rendered by McCarthy through brief but powerful encounters between Cole and male figures of authority: The hacienda’s boss, the judge who hears Cole’s confession and absolves him of guilt. There’s a wonderful moment in the novel, in which an imaginary character appears in the hall when Cole places a painful phone call to Alejandra. It’s a surreal moment in which Cole imagines the stranger to be tap-dancing, but Thornton is incapable of registering it onscreen.

Finally, the acting itself is not entirely pleasing. Damon, still exuding boyish charisma, is adequate but no more. The beautiful Cruz, so vivid in her Spanish films (All About My Mother) is pallid, and lack of chemistry with Damon makes their erotic scenes awkward. A large gallery of talented supporting actors, including Bruce Dern as the judge, Ruben Blades as Rocha, Julio Oscar Mechoso as the captain, play too minor roles to be memorable.