Length: 116 minutes
Release Date: December 25, 2000
Directed by: Billy Bob Thornton
Genre: Drama / Romance / Western
The western is one of the oldest genres in film history. Pictures that fell into the genre in one way or another were dominant during the silent era, and the subsequent decades brought with them several great western revivals, including the mid-century spaghetti western wave and more recently the deconstructive anti-western embodied by gutsy and intelligent classics like “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” and “Unforgiven.” Whether approaching western movie tropes from a romantic or a revisionist perspective, there is something about the mythology of the Old West that has captured the imagination of filmmakers and filmgoers for over a century.
By the time “All the Pretty Horses” was released in 2000, the western and all its dominant sub-genres had been well established. This left room for exploration of the western mythology independent from any pigeonholing as part of a movement or grand statement. Instead, “All the Pretty Horses” is a reflection on a disappearing wilderness and lifestyle in the middle of the 20th century. Director Billy Bob Thornton effectively pieces together a gorgeous elegy and an effective portrait of a time in place in the history of America and the lives of the movie’s characters.
Billy Bob Thornton broke into the movie industry not just as an actor, but also as an acclaimed filmmaker. Thornton announced himself as a major talent by writing, directing and starring in 1996’s “Sling Blade,” a feature-length adaptation of his acclaimed short film. The Academy helped push the auteur into rarefied air by awarding him Oscars for both acting and adapted screenplay for his very first movie.
Just a few years later, Thornton followed up his directorial debut with the different but no less effective “All the Pretty Horses.” In many ways “All the Pretty Horses” is a 21st century revival of the western genre. However, in many other important ways this Matt Damon film is its own animal entirely. Granted, Thornton was working from a 1992 Cormac McCarthy bestseller of the same name.
The film takes place not during the late 19th century, but in the middle of the 20th, not exactly a common time period in the western genre. Nonetheless, the relative wilderness of the movie’s Texas and Mexico locations is on its last legs, on the verge of being steamrolled by a more modern world of highways and sprawl.
This type of change is in the air at the start of the plot and actually kicks off the story as rancher John Grady Cole, played by Damon, is forced off his ranch by an oil company and its money. Grady is not ready to give up his classic western lifestyle that easily, however, and brings his similarly minded friend Lacey Rawlins along for a journey south in pursuit of whatever is left of the western lifestyle.
As the pair of cowboys head toward Mexico, the audience is treated to a visual meditation of the bewitching qualities and natural beauty of the area. The director clearly put no small amount of effort into the movie’s visual power. Cinematographer Barry Markowitz, who previously worked with Thornton on “Sling Blade,” demonstrates some of his finest work on wide shots of breathtaking vistas and tighter shots on characters in the environment that suits them best.
Of course, the journey does not go flawlessly. Cole and Rawlins run into Jimmy Blevins, the catalyst of much of the story’s drama and maybe the movie’s most fascinating character. Blevins tags along, although he is not exactly welcome. However, John and Rawlins are mystified by the very young man’s gunplay skills and seemingly expensive horse. Thanks to Jimmy and some shady circumstances, the main characters are soon on the run, ensnared in a possible horse theft.
Lacey and John are able to temporarily part ways with Jimmy and outrun justice for a crime they did not commit, and this gives Damon’s character enough time to meet and fall for Alejandra, played by Penelope Cruz. The star power created by Damon and Cruz works well within the world created by “All the Pretty Horses.” The plot is simple, but the mood is thick and otherworldly.
As John’s problems catch up with him, it becomes more obvious than ever that this is a character doing his best to deal with extraordinary circumstances over which he has little control, a common theme of Cormac McCarthy’s work that translates well to the screen. The situations may be dramatic, but they always feel real. The best qualities of “All the Pretty Horses” are in its contradictions; the movie is visually beautiful but unusually realistic, suitably dramatic but strikingly down to earth.
In modern day filmmaking, it is a challenge to bring anything new to the western genre. However, with the aid of Cormac McCarthy’s acclaimed novel, Billy Bob Thornton constructs a haunting mix of beauty and realism for “All the Pretty Horses.”
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