In All the Pretty Horses, two Texan teenagers answer the call of the West by going south, crossing the Rio Grande into the untamed, unspoiled landscape of Mexico. Horses is the first novel of McCarthy's "Border Trilogy," and in each book the beauty and wildness of Mexico seduces and then wounds young American men.
Thanks to the portentous, almost Biblical quality of McCarthy's prose, the novel has a sweeping, archetypal quality in its depiction of the land, horses and individuality. In directing Ted Tally's adapted screenplay, Billy Bob Thornton offers an ambitious but indistinct vision of the clash of cultures, and the story seems too small for its wide-open spaces.
As a timeless place for escape and affirmation, the frontier of the American West has virtually vanished in 1949. John Grady Cole (Matt Damon) and Lacey Rawlins (Henry Thomas) helplessly witness the break-up of farms, families and futures. They saddle up and head South of the Border, hoping to find a place purer than what America has become.
Initially, Cole and Rawlins are on a grand adventure, putting their parents' failures and creditors behind them. Against Rawlins' better judgment, they take up with a stray American boy, Jimmy Blevins, played by Lucas Black, the drawling, crewcut lad from Thornton's Sling Blade. A runty, would-be desperado, Blevins travels with a suspiciously impressive horse and handgun. When asked, "Where'd you get a gun like this?" Blevins replies, "At the gettin' place," in a sample of the film's laconic comedy.
Eventually Cole and Rawlins find work on a sprawling ranch, bigger and older than some American states, where Cole catches the eye of the house's aristocratic daughter (Penelope Cruz). At Cole's urging, he and Rawlins embark on the difficult task of "breaking" 16 wild horses in four days, leading to a rodeo-esque montage of rough-and-tumble ranch work, the film's most liberating sequence.
We don't know if Cole intentionally wanted to impress the landowning Don Hector (Rubén Blades) or his daughter, but Cole's gumption moves him from the ranch house to the mansion. When he and the Don begin discussing the breeding potential of mares and stallions, you can see what's in store for Cole and the daughter. But before their romance takes Romeo and Juliet proportions, Cole and Rawlins find themselves on the wrong end of Mexican justice.
As a director, Thornton had a firm command over the white-trash psychodrama of Sling Blade but shows less control for the moral and geographic scope of a true Western. The film prettily captures the scenery and finds some effective moments, like the cathartic crossings of the river, a horrifying prison knife fight and tender moments between Damon and Cruz. But All the Pretty Horses has few memorable shots or compositions, whereas an oater like The Searchers or The Wild Bunch is built out of one indelible image after another.
All the Pretty Horses' release has been a long time coming, amid rumors of struggles over editing the film down from four hours to about half that (and there are characters listed in the closing credits whom you never see in the film). That might confirm the choppiness apparent in much of it. The early American scenes offer fleeting appearances by Sam Shepard and Robert Patrick and the briefest of indications of small town decay, á la The Last Picture Show.
Crucial episodes, like the death of a central character, are awkwardly described after the fact rather than shown. And certainly the humor of Damon and Thomas' deadpan dialogue would have benefited from a more drawn-out pace. Silence of the Lambs' screenwriter Tally approximates the cowboy poetry of McCarthy's novel, where lines like, "Country lasts forever, people ain't but a little while," are spoken with the utmost sincerity.
All the Pretty Horses doesn't sit tall enough in the saddle to meet its ambitions, but in content, if not achievement, it belongs with other films about the twilight of the West, which comprise nearly all of the major Westerns, such as The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Ride the High Country and Dances With Wolves. The Western Frontier might be gone, but in the movies, the Dying West lives forever.
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