All The Pretty Horses
Starring: Matt Damon, Penelope Cruz, Henry Thomas, and Lucas Black

Billy Bob Thornton


Ted Tally

Distributor: Miramax/Columbia Pictures * 116 minutes
Rated: PG-13 for violence and some sexuality
  (USA 2000)

Although Matt Damon is ostensibly the star of the romantic Western ALL THE PRETTY HORSES, don't be fooled for a minute -- the real star is the landscape. An elegant sunset on the Mexican horizon, the breathtaking depth of the Rio Grande canyon, a grassy hill littered with noble wild horses...these are the lasting memories of this serenely exquisite film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's National Book Award-winning novel.

With a measured pace and an evident affection for the natural surroundings, director Thornton has made a south-of-the-border film that isn't for everyone; indeed, many will feel frustrated by its slow storytelling and atmospheric wanderings. More patient filmgoers, however, will find a surprising number of simple joys in ALL THE PRETTY HORSES. Part elegy, part romance, and part myth, it's a sweeping paean to the lost West, a dreamy chronicling of the end of an age. Unabashedly, Thornton is proclaiming in PRETTY HORSES a nostalgic love for that hazy part of history when cowboys were heroes, women were almost unreal beauties, and young men undertook odysseys of enormous courage in order to become men. Whether that history ever actually existed or not (or whether it was an invention of Hollywood), the film revels in its own luxuriousness.

Which is not to say that ALL THE PRETTY HORSES is perfect -- far from it. The problems appear early, in an exposition so compacted that it ends before the opening credits do. A young Texas rancher, John Grady Cole (Matt Damon), finds himself homeless after his mother sells his deceased father's ranch. In 1949, the age of the cowboy cattle rancher is coming to an end in America. Looking for a fresh start, Cole and his friend Lacey Rawlins (Henry Thomas) decide to head south to Mexico, where, they've heard, the ranches are still enormous, filled with the promise of adventure and excitement.

On their way to the Rio Grande, Cole and Lacey meet up with Blevins (Lucas Black). Barely a teenager, Blevins is a hard-talking troublemaker with a gift for winning people over. But trouble begins when Blevins tries to steal his horse back from a band of Mexicans...trouble that will follow Cole and Lacey, who have begun work on the ranch of Don Hector (Ruben Blades). There's even more trouble ahead for Cole, who falls for Don Hector's beautiful young daughter, Alejandra (Penelope Cruz).

What begins as a simple rite-of-passage story for Cole takes sharp turns which test his ability simply to survive. It's an extraordinary story, one which succeeds even in spite of the cumbersome screenplay by Oscar-winning writer Ted Tally.

Truthfully, however, the film isn't called COLE'S EXCELLENT MEXICAN ADVENTURE, or even COLE'S REALLY GOOD STORY. The focus is, understandably, on all the pretty horses and the gorgeous Mexican scenery. Thornton brings an almost photographic sensibility to his direction; together with his longtime collaborator, cinematographer Barry Markowitz, the film's camera work recalls Ansel Adams and other majestic nature photographers. The camera lingers on some images, which many, more-narrative driven viewers may find tiresome. Afficionados of strong visual sensibilities, however, will be in heaven.

It must be noted, however, that sometimes the dialogue, characters, and plot suffer from Thornton's love affair with mountains and valleys. Penelope Cruz (ALL ABOUT MY MOTHER, WOMAN ON TOP) makes for a quite wooden Alejandra; an actress of limited ability, Cruz isn't suited for such a tempestuous role. Complicating things further is the fact that she has almost zero chemistry with leading man Damon, who works overtime trying to make the relationship sizzle. Their dialogue, like much of Tally's leaden screenplay, is often trite and overblown.

But all is not lost. There's a simply superb performance by Lucas Black, arguably the best young actor in Hollywood, as Blevins. Black inhabits this role like a second skin, finding both the feisty fire and the timid child inside this fascinating character. He speaks his lines with an effortless ease, his natural star-power making him the focus of any scene he's in. In a perfect world, Black would have won an Oscar for a performance this good.

Henry Thomas, who started his career as a similarly talented child actor, also gives a strong performance as the conflicted Lacey. Damon cements his string of solid, affecting performances, portraying Cole with an assured, tender grace.

In spite of all the cowboys and gunfights, ALL THE PRETTY HORSES is really a film of emotions, a struggle both for manhood and survival. Cole is a postmodern John Wayne, a gunslinger who isn't afraid of telling a woman what he feels. Not only is the Western genre lovingly romanticized, but the cowboys themselves are, too. They're just nice guys, deep down.

Reality? I doubt it. But then, that's hardly a requirement for a good film. ALL THE PRETTY HORSES is exquisite escapism. For those who enjoy the cinema's ability to transport you to other times, places, and realities, it's a perfect Mexican getaway.

-- Gabriel Shanks

Review text copyright © 2000 Gabriel Shanks and Cozzi fan Tutti. All rights reserved. Reproduction of text in whole or in part in any form or in any medium without express written permission of Cozzi fan Tutti or the author is prohibited.


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