“What’s it like to be dead?” cowpoke John Grady Cole (Matt Damon) asks a deceased acquaintance in a dream sequence toward the close of Billy Bob Thornton’s adaptation of the celebrated novel by Cormac McCarthy, about a young Texan who travels to Mexico, where he falls for the daughter of a rich rancher and gets himself into a heap of trouble with the law. Those of us watching needn’t wait for the ghost to give his answer, since the movie itself provides one. Leadenly paced, emotionally desiccated and tediously glum, the filmization of “All the Pretty Horses” is itself a cinematic corpse which lumbers about like one of the undead for a couple of hours before grinding to a merciful halt. Ship this nag off to the glue factory, boys.
The fault lies, it would seem, squarely on Thornton’s shoulders. It’s possible to imagine a version of the story which might have had some energy and resonance, but the director opts for a ponderous, glacially slow approach which offers some gorgeous outdoor vistas but proves deadly to the dialogue sequences and most of the performances. Perhaps Thornton was aiming for the mood of melancholy deliberation which worked so well for Clint Eastwood in “Unforgiven” (1992), but if so he’s missed his target by a country mile. Despite its unhurried pace, Eastwood’s film had an underlying coiled tension which constantly made one sit up and take notice. “Horses,” on the other hand, resembles last year’s “Snow Falling on Cedars” in that it’s pictorially impressive but dramatically inert and monochromatic; and when Thornton tries to inject a bit of surrealistic imagery into the mix–especially in a scene in which an unnamed old man goes into a odd tap-dance while overhearing one half of a phone conversation-the effect is like a lame imitation of David Lynch (remember the dwarf in “Twin Peaks”), baffling rather than entrancing. Instead of reinvigorating the modern western, the picture just adds another nail to its coffin.
Perhaps the film could have maintained a pulse if the cast were stronger, but that’s a moot point. Damon, who was so alive and vital under Anthony Minghella’s direction in 1999’s “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” has followed that up with a very bad year, first doing little more than posing in period clothes in Robert Redford’s “The Legend of Bagger Vance” and now offering a wooden, enervated portrait of Cole. To be fair, he does show some of his old spark in the sequences in which he’s forced to serve time in a hellish Mexican hoosegow, but everywhere else he seems diffident to a fault. Even worse, he exhibits no chemistry with Penelope Cruz, who plays the lovely and, we’re supposed to believe, rebellious Alejandra. Actually, Damon and the photogenic but stiff Cruz probably never had a chance, since Thornton has seen fit to reduce their purportedly passionate affair to little more than a thirty-second montage in which they glance in one another’s direction and promptly fall into the sack. The lack of credible intensity in their coupling leaves an emotional hole at the center of the story.
With a single exception, the supporting cast doesn’t lend much energy to the enterprise, either. Henry Thomas is likable but stolid as Cole’s loyal buddy Lacey Rawlins, and Ruben Blades and Miriam Colon have little to do but project snootiness as Alejandra’s protective father and aunt. Julio Oscar Mechoso contributes some oily menace as a soft-spoken but unprincipled Mexican police captain, but the picture would have benefited more if he weren’t made up to look so much like the comic character that Alan Arkin played in “The Russians Are Coming”–the resemblance dilutes the “Treasure of the Sierra Madre” feel that Thornton’s clearly going for. Robert Patrick (as John’s daddy), Sam Shepard (as a lawyer) and Bruce Dern (as a kindly judge) are decent enough in brief cameos, though only Dern, appearing in a succession of static, carefully-composed shots, makes much of an impression. Actually, the only performer who cuts a memorable figure is young Lucas Black (from Thornton’s far superior “Sling Blade”) as the runaway Blevins, whose manic foolhardiness implicates Cole and Rawlins in his misdeeds. Black’s is a showy, exaggerated turn, but at least it catches the eye amidst his seemingly comatose co-stars.
To end on a more positive note, one can praise Barry Markowitz’s elegant cinematography, which gives the outdoor shots a luminous, radiant quality, and the obvious but effective score by Marty Stuart. Editor Sally Menke also deserves recognition, not because her work keeps the picture from being lethargic, but because, according to reports, Thornton’s original cut ran a full four hours and has been severely trimmed. Watching a 117-minute “All the Pretty Horses” is about as pleasant as going a full day over rough terrain on a hard saddle, but imagine how painful it would be at twice the length.