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Review: All the Pretty Horses

By Melynda Nuss

Henry Thomas and Matt Damon
Henry Thomas and Matt Damon

Matt Damon, Lucas Black, Henry Thomas

Matt Damon, Lucas Black and Henry Thomas

Matt Damon and Penelope Cruz

Matt Damon and Penelope Cruz

Photos courtesy of Miramax Films

SAN FRANCISCO, 14 January 2001 - It is difficult to imagine transferring Cormac McCarthy's bleak but beautiful prose to the screen. Take this passage from Blood Meridian:

The country before them lay clouded and dark. They rode through the long twilight and the sun set and no moon rose and to the west the mountains shuddered again and again in clattering frames and burned to final darkness and the rain hissed in the blind night land. They went up through the foothills among pine trees and barren rock and they went up through juniper and spruce and the rare great aloes and the rising stalks of the yucas with their pale blooms silent and unearthly among the evergreens.

The basic stage direction is "the cowboys ride up the mountain at night," a scene you can imagine in almost any horse opera, but in McCarthy's hands the ride becomes a trek through hell. The mountains shudder and burn, the rain hisses, the yucas rise silent and unearthly, and even the sentences run on in imitation of that endless, barren ride. It would take a heck of a director to convey all of that on screen - "Shudder, dammit! I want those mountains to shudder!" - and it would take a heck of an audience to watch it. After all, the staple of most westerns is the shoot 'em up - the final showdown - something you get aplenty in McCarthy works likeBlood Meridian. But how long would a movie audience be willing to sit through shuddering mountains and unearthly aloes to get there?

The great thing about Billy Bob Thornton's version of All the Pretty Horses is that it gets the land right. The scrub land of South Texas and Mexico stretches dark and unearthly in front of his riders; boulders rise like tombstones out of the desert. It's the perfect backdrop for a couple of ranch kids trying to be cowboys - just romantic enough to look like the old west, just real enough to show how unromantic the old west really was. The roads are dusty, the buildings are crumbling, and Eldorado is always just about ten or twenty miles away. The movie is also unusually faithful to plot and character. Lucas Black, as the boy Jimmy Blevins, almost steals the whole show, and his boyish energy lights up the friendship between John Grady Cole and Lacey Rollins (Matt Damon and Henry Thomas) and shows the fragility that lies behind their western bravado.

But considering that this is a movie about an anachronism - a couple of cowboys looking for the Old West at a time when all of the ranchland in Texas has been fenced in and bought by the oil companies - the movie itself is kind of an anachronism, following the baroque rhythms and turns of prose at a time when even books are starting to copy the frantic pacing and surface visualism of the movies. It's an odd movie to watch. The dialogue, much of it copied lovingly from the book by screenwriter Ted Tally, is startling in its understatement. At times it's even funny. But it suits the movie well. This is a very quiet film - a lot of shots of young cowboys riding across the desert, horses galloping around the corral, prisoners milling around the courtyard of a Mexican prison. Even the romance between John Grady Cole and Alejandra Rocha (Penelope Cruz) comes across as oddly wordless. Even Tom Cruise and Thandie Newton had more dialogue in MI:2 than these young lovers. It's a falling in love in super slow motion, with horses in the background as symbols - definitely not a modern love affair.

Unfortunately, All the Pretty Horses appears to have been a critical and commercial disappointment - the box office figures aren't what the studio expected, and no one’s screaming for Oscars. In fact, the movie may not win any awards at all. If that's true, it would be a shame. As William Wordsworth said over two hundred years ago, an author who wants to please the public is under a sort of implied engagement that he will "gratify certain known habits of association." If he wants to break those habits, he must "create the taste by which he would be enjoyed." If you go to All the Pretty Horses expecting to see a movie, you might be disappointed. But if you want to watch the mountains shudder, then this is your film.

Three and a half stars

Melynda Nuss is a writer based in Austin, Texas. She is currently working on a book about stagecraft and the Romantic drama.

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