movie review by
Gary Johnson


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All the Pretty Horses

Long before All the Pretty Horses was ready for release, rumors began circulating that Billy Bob Thornton's original cut was four hours long and that the final version had been subjected to savage edits by the studio to bring it under two hours. In recent interviews, however, Thornton has dispelled these rumors. He was contractually obligated to deliver a movie no longer than two hours or risk the loss of final cut privileges. Early on, he did indeed show studio executives an assembly cut of three hours and fifteen minutes, but assembly cuts are typically very rough and contain excess footage. From this screening, rumors sprang.

In part, I wish the rumors were true because that would mean a more complete edit would likely exist that someday (maybe on DVD as a "director's cut") would finally be released. But the movie as released to theaters is in fact the movie that Thornton wanted to make. All the Pretty Horses contains a compelling story with magnificent cinematography, but it feels rushed. Based on Cormac McCarthy's best-selling and critically-praised novel, All the Pretty Horses is a rhythmically clumsy movie. We get a beautifully composed camera shot for three seconds and then CUT. The camera shows us the face of cowboy John Grady (Matt Damon) as he considers his future (for two seconds!) and CUT. As John and his friend Lacey Rawlins (Henry Thomas) ride their horses down a dirt road, we get a barrage of quick shots -- cactus, horse hooves, dust, terrain -- as if Thornton is filming a prison breakout movie. Virtually every scene is hyped with editing that forgoes the laconic atmosphere of life on the range in Texas or Mexico and replaces it with a Hollywood-ized, outsider's perspective. Film editor Sally Menke is a veteran of several Quentin Tarantino movies, including Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs, which might explain the city-paced editing.

Despite the film's heavy-handedness, Cormac McCarthy's storytelling survives. Screenwriter Ted Tally (who won an Academy Award in 1992 for his adaptation of Thomas Harris' Silence of the Lambs) has performed an admirable job of condensing the novel down to its essentials (although you'll undoubtedly hear fans of the novel complain about what's missing).

All the Pretty Horses tells the story of West Texas cattle rancher John Grady, whose father has recently died. The elder Grady's property goes to his ex-wife, who has no compassion for the land and what it means to John. She plans to sell the land to an oil company. This action will effectively leave John without a home. He consults a lawyer (playwright Sam Shepard in a small role) and finds there is nothing he can do. The land will go to John's mother and she can do with it whatever she wants. Despondent over the loss of his father, his profession, and the land that he considers "heaven on earth," John dreams about heading to Mexico, where he hears ranches still exist that are so big you can't ride from one end to the other in a week. John convinces Lacey Rawlins to go with him and soon they're headed for the Rio Grande.

This is an exceptionally compelling basis for a story. It serves as a metaphor for the elimination of wild places in America and for the intrusion of corporate greed. The image of John Grady and Lacey Rawlins riding horseback toward a country they know little about is mournful but also exhilarating. They've given up everything except for the clothes on their backs and the horses they're riding upon.

Their journey first introduces them to a blustery teenager named Blevins (Lucas Black, who starred opposite Thornton in Sling Blade) who is also headed for Mexico. John and Lacey soon suspect he "has a nut loose," especially after he strips off all his clothes and hunkers down in a ditch when a thunderstorm strikes. Their biggest test comes once they discover the ranch of their dreams -- 27,000 acres of paradise ruled by a powerful businessman Don Hector Rocha y Villarael (Ruben Blades). They're hired as ranch hands and bunk down, but soon John's eyes land on a beautiful Mexican senorita, Alejandra (Penelope Cruz), the daughter of Rocha. She makes it clear she's available for John Grady. Unfortunately, they've been warned by her grandmother that this union can never happen.

While this plot is fairly conventional stuff, Cormac McCarthy's novel made it seem fresh with his intense prose. Thornton never finds a filmic method for communicating the atmosphere of McCarthy's novel (other than the rapid-fire editing). But nonetheless, Thornton's All the Pretty Horses is an elegant and almost poetic endeavor. Much of the movie's failure or success rests on Matt Damon, for he is in nearly every scene. Damon is a remarkable actor. Unlike so many young actors, he knows how to be determined without seeming cocky. His face is young, but it conveys strength and an inner resolve. Henry Thomas (best known for his performance as Elliott in E.T.) is now 29 years old, but he seems at least a decade younger when the movie opens. As the movie progresses, we see the years catch up with him. It's in this movie that Thomas really grows up as an actor. He gives a touching performance as John Grady's sidekick.

Billy Bob Thornton's All the Pretty Horses certainly isn't a perfect movie, but it carries a rough grandeur and a foreboding urgency. Cinematographer Barry Markowitz (who also lensed Sling Blade and The Apostle) conveys his respect for the land with wonderful compositions that emphasize the size and majesty of the terrain. He gives us a rugged yet graceful world that can be both beautiful and brutal.

All the Pretty Horses never manages to hit much of an emotional peak before lurching into its concluding scenes, which recall Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch. But John Grady's journey is nonetheless poignant and affecting. If only Thornton had more patience for his storytelling and editing, this could have been a profound movie.

[rating: 3 of 4 stars]