Friends and fellow cattlemen Charley Waite and Boss Spearman, along with two hired hands (Mose and Button), freegraze their herds across the open prairies of the new Western frontier. But to nasty rancher Denton Baxter—who controls the cattle industry of the mountain town of Harmonville, as well as the corrupt local sheriff and a band of thugs—this legal practice is still repugnant. So when Baxter orders his henchmen to rough up Mose, which in turn leads to Mose's murder and Button winding up comatose, it's "justice" Charley and Boss seek. The pair also pursue medical care for Button. Charley, who's really a loner because of secrets he carries from his past, takes a fancy to Sue Barlow, the good doctor's sister. But will Charley survive his inevitable showdown with Baxter, seeing that he and Boss are outnumbered a dozen-to-one in this one-horse town? Or will the frightened townspeople finally stand up to Baxter?
positive elements: While not saints, Charley and Boss operate out of a sense of decency and wild-west honor. They respect one another, care for their two employees, and when necessary are willing to sacrifice money, time and even their very lives to do what's right. Mose's loyalty to Charley is rooted in his boss's willingness to overlook his large (and un-cowboy like) frame. While Boss accepts the doctor's kind offer to bandage up Mose for free (both Sue and her brother operate out of a great sense of compassion), the cattleman refuses benevolence a second time when it involves Button ("We pay our way, ma'am"). Charley rescues a townperson's pet dog that has been swept up in flood-like conditions. Trying to recruit the folk of Harmonville to stand up to Baxter, Charley points out, "There are things that gnaw at a man worse than dying." When a shopkeeper admits he can't afford to sample the very expensive Swiss chocolate he sells, Boss gives him a piece of his new purchase. Confronting Baxter a dying Baxter, Boss chastises him for losing his life, "For what? More cows?"
spiritual content: Following the death of Mose, Charley asks Boss to say a few words at the gravesite. Boss declines saying he's mad at that "son of a b---h" (referring to God) for letting this needless death happen. Charley then says a few kind words, and admits that he, too, holds a grudge against the Almighty. When Button comes out of his coma, Sue deflects personal praise for nursing him back to health, noting that God made it happen. She says, "Best thank God instead!," to which Boss replies, "We'll give that a try." A bartender justifies his intense anger at Charley and Boss with a shout of, "I don't care if they saved Jesus himself."
sexual content: On the positive side, Charley refuses Sue's offer for Boss and himself to spend the night in her spare bedroom, saying it wouldn't look right. On the negative side, very little despite the R rating. Boss longs to someday open a saloon with "dancin' girls." Through an open bedroom door, Charley sees Sue getting dressed (she's clothed in layers of undergarments). To his credit, his look is not lustful. One of Baxter's hired thugs makes a crude comment involving "a 300-pound whore."
violent content: Angry that Button cheated at cards, Charley shoves him off his horse into a stream. Battling personal demons from his past, a jumpy Charley hallucinates and winds up pulling a gun on Sue, thinking she's one of Baxter's thugs (expensive China gets broken in the process). A bloodied Mose spends the night jailed after being roughed up by Baxter's crew. In retaliation for this act, Boss and Charley track the thugs down. Boss rifle-butts two, knees another, and threatens to kill them all. Charley slides a beer mug down a bar counter, sending it into the face of the barkeep. And that's it for the PG violence. The rest (the final gun battle) moves this film into its restricted classification. Shooting is often at close range. Bullets are seen entering. Blood spatters. Bad guys die. And rather than wait for the thugs to start the fight, Charley fires the first shot after a Baxter assassin boasts, "I shot the boy, too, and enjoyed it." One especially gruesome scene involves Boss shooting Baxter a number of times from about three feet away (Boss refuses to fire one last shot that would more quickly end his life, choosing to let him suffer more). Sue slaps the corrupt sheriff ("You're a disgrace, Marshall!"). From a distance, a group of townsfolk are shown chasing a bad guy, shooting him with rifles, eventually killing him.
crude or profane language: Two s-words, a number of "d--n"s (often paired with "God"), and two disturbing misuses of Jesus's name are joined by other crass expressions, such as numerous uses of "SOB."
drug and alcohol content: Boss frequently smokes. Before the big showdown, he purchases three expensive Cuban cigars to smoke (Charley and the delivery man, too), believing it may be their final hour. Charley chews tobacco (and spits a lot). One townsperson smokes a pipe. At a saloon, Boss and Charley order whiskey, downing two shots apiece. Patrons drink, smoke and gamble. Whiskey is also used medicinally. [Spoiler Warning] Charley and Boss choose to give up the cattle business and run a saloon.
other negative elements: Perhaps the greatest caveat is this film's nod to vigilantism. Lines like, "We came for justice not vengeance," "Kill 'em, don't murder 'em" and "You'll be no different than Baxter [if you finish a villain off]" leave the impression one or both of the honorable cattlemen have it all figured out. In reality, whether it's called "justice" or any other name, it plays out as revenge. Boss and Charley resort to violence because they believe it's best and because they lack patience. They know they have an alternative—waiting for the federal marshal to arrive. But that takes time (and besides, if they go that route it won't set up the dramatic shootout at the end).
conclusion: The cinematography is outstanding—especially with the Alberta Rockies as a backdrop. Costner and Duvall are believable as cowboys and the chemistry between the two allows the audience to get to know and root for them. They're vulnerable. They're transparent. There is nothing super-hero about them. Plus, Boss and Charley know their weaknesses. Well, some of 'em. What they don't seem to understand is that the government is instituted to protect and prosecute. Elsewhere, while we don't see them drinking to excess, it seems likely they have few boundaries there either. They do shine as examples of compassion and respect (profanities not withstanding). Had this been a Roy Rogers, Gene Autry or Hopalong Cassidy flick, the bad guys would fall without the bloody closeups. Perhaps someday a new Western will capture the heart and realism of Open Range and leave the violence more to the imagination.