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All The Pretty Horses

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  • Noel Vera
    All the pretty horsing around Noel Vera All The Pretty Horses is Billy Bob Thornton s latest, a truncated effort to bring Cormac MacCarthy s novel to the big
    Message 1 of 1 , Jun 1, 2001
      All the pretty horsing around

      Noel Vera

      "All The Pretty Horses" is Billy Bob Thornton's latest, a truncated effort
      to bring Cormac MacCarthy's novel to the big screen. The film's running
      time was originally about four hours, but the studio had it cut to 112
      minutes; as of this writing Thornton is apparently happy with the final cut,
      and so the film was released.

      None of which I knew when I sat down to watch (wasn't even aware there was a
      novel). All I did know was that for a while it was fine entertainment, with
      Matt Damon and someone who looked disturbingly familiar (it took a while to
      recognize Henry Thomas, who's grown since he appeared on "E.T.") on horses,
      loping along the Southwest border into Mexico together.

      Then Damon and Thomas--or, if you will, John Grady Cole and Lacey
      Rawlins--meet up with Jimmy Blevins (Lucas Black, who was in Thornton's
      previous film, "Sling Blade"). Blevins is an odd character, a youngster at
      once vulnerable and vicious, someone you feel protective about the same time
      you want nothing at all to do with him. Blevins is
      funny enough when he rattles away about his family's propensity to be struck
      by lightning, but his misadventures pull Cole and Rawlins into serious
      trouble, and they decide to part ways.

      It's about this point that you feel "All The Pretty Horses" start sliding
      off its saddle. Thornton, for all his apparent love of horseback riding,
      can't seem to direct a coherent horsenapping sequence. There's a lot of
      milling about, Blevin and his horse does a Godardian jump-cut over a fence,
      and away they go, without much coherence, much less suspense.

      But a minor complaint; the action moves on to a Mexican ranch, where Cole
      and Rawlins sign up--and suddenly it's "Like Water for Chocolate," with
      plenty of poetic lighting, delicious Mexican food (the burritos look fat and
      oily), and a beautiful Mexican woman named Alejandra (Penelope Cruz) riding
      by on horseback. Now THIS looked interesting, I thought.

      I thought wrong. It turns into another 'ranch hand falls for the
      haciendero's daughter, and her father Does Not Approve' flick--and no, I'm
      not familiar with every telenovela that comes out of South America, but
      Filipino films (and, I'm sure, the films of every country under the sun)
      must have used the storyline to death. It's not much fresher in this
      incarnation, either.

      The film's not totally stale; Ruben Blades is fine as Rocha, Alejandra's
      father, and Miriam Colon is grandly matriarchal as Dona Alfonsa, the young
      woman's aunt. Except Thornton doesn't make much use of Blades, a fine
      actor, beyond his understated manner and his sidelong glances. And with the
      handsome Colon he makes the unfortunate choice of shooting her in close-up,
      so that her strong presence and emphatic voice makes us want to step back a
      little ways--say, Texas. By contrast, Cruz and Damon make a pair of cute
      puppy-dog lovers; after one meaningful argument over who is to ride whose
      horse, the rest of the affair is conducted music-video style, with images of
      love making accompanied by romantic guitar music.

      Then the movie starts up again, rather belatedly. Cole and Rawlins--yes,
      remember Rawlins?--are arrested and put in a small jail, where they meet
      Blevins again�only now, the easygoing rhythms of the first half of the film
      have been replaced by prison melodrama. There are interrogations and much
      breast-beating, culminating in a climax so drawn-out it seems to want to
      recall the Russian Roulette scene in "The Deer Hunter," only slower, more
      elliptical. Then Cole and Rawlins are thrown into a Mexican penitentiary
      and we are assured by Thornton that the pair have reached hell on
      earth--unmotivated beatings and stabbings galore (so poorly staged,
      incidentally, that we're not sure if they're being knifed or tickled in the
      ribs). We never get to know their fellow prisoners, we never get that
      languid sense of time you get in prison life, nothing. Just a lot of slow
      motion and artful cinematography, "Shawshank Redemption"-style (I don't know
      if it's my mood or the movie, but this was one of the times I couldn't see
      anything fresh, anywhere).

      It may not be Thornton's fault, it could possibly be the book's fault, but
      again here, as in Stephen Soderbergh's "Traffic" you feel the aftereffects
      of compression. For all you know, Blades' Rocha was a complex man who had
      to struggle between his affection for Cole and his love for his daughter;
      for all you know, the prisoners did joke about and bond in between the
      stabbings; for all you know, Cole does say something to Alejandra after
      making love, perhaps even an entire sentence. It's just that all this was
      presumably lost when the film was reduced from its four-hour running time.
      We may never know (unless Thornton comes out with a director's cut)�

      There are good things in this film and Thornton being a good actor it mainly
      comes out of the performances. I've mentioned Blades who might actually be
      wonderful if they had been given him something to do; I also mentioned Colon
      in relation to distance. Cruz isn't really playing a character; we know she
      has the hots for Damon, but we never understand the complex knot of feelings
      she has for either her father or her aunt, so we can't understand the hold
      they have on her. Damon does his job with understated competence, and rises
      to the occasion when the occasion calls for (some rather clumsy) gunplay or
      a knife-fight; Thomas is fine enough--he's got this look of sensitivity down
      pat, plus a relaxed watchfulness that complements events nicely. But the
      actor that rides off with the picture has to be Lucas Black--his character
      is all contradictions, both pitiful and psychotic at the same time, yet you
      believe in him; he's alive in a way none of the other characters in the film
      are.

      Near the film's end Cole and Alejandra do meet up again, and this time
      declare their eternal love--but it's too little, too late, both in terms of
      the story and in terms of drama. As far as Latin love affairs go, this one
      radiates as much heat as a leftover chimichanga; the real relationship is
      between Damon and Thomas, riding down the dusty trail with nothing left
      behind them and a whole world--not to mention a whole film--before them, not
      so many minutes ago.

      (Comments? Email me at noelbotevera@...)

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