All the Pretty Horses
Screenplay : Ted Tally (based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2000
Stars : Matt Damon (John Grady Cole), Henry Thomas (Lacey Rawlins), Penélope Cruz (Alejandra), Lucas Black (Jimmy Blevins), Rubén Blades (Rocha), Miriam Colon (Dona Alfonsa), Bruce Dern (Judge), Robert Patrick (Cole), Sam Shepard (J.C. Franklin)
In Cormac McCarthy's 1992 novel All the Pretty Horses, it takes the main character, a young cowboy from Texas named John Grady Cole, almost half an hour to tell a judge the story of what happened to him from the time he left his Texas ranch to find work in Mexico to the point where he ends up in the courtroom. Director Billy Bob Thornon, on the other hand, takes two and a half hours to tell that story in his film adaptation, and it appears that he needed more time.
Originally, Thornton had submitted a four-hour cut of the film and was promptly sent back to the editing room because Hollywood doesn't believe American audiences can sit still for more than 150 minutes ... at the longest. Whether or not another hour and a half would have improved Thornton's film will never be known unless it shows up in a director's cut some day on video.
One might surmise that it would be, given that the two-and-a-half hour theatrical version gives the hint of something that might have been better with a little more time. As is, All the Pretty Horses is a beautifully filmed modern Western that moves at a quick pace, but feels clunky and ill-formed. Some passages flow smoothly, but other parts feel hacked up and slightly jumbled, as if something is missing.
The story follows two best friends--John Grady Cole (Matt Damon) and Lacey Rawlins (Henry Thomas)--who have always imagined that they would grow up to be ranchers. However, they were unfortunate enough to have been born in the 20th century, right about the time when the industrial age finally swallowed up any remnants of the mythic Old West. When the film begins in 1949, John Grady's grandfather has just died, and his mother has sold their family ranch in San Angelo, Texas, to an oil company.
John Grady and Lacey take off for Mexico, having heard that there are still old-fashioned cattle ranches in operation there. "There are some ranches that are so big, you can't ride across them in a week," John Grady proclaims. They are briefly joined by a 16-year-old runaway named Jimmy Blevins (Lucas Black), and although Lacey distrusts the boy and thinks he will be trouble, John Grady insists that they help him out. Trouble arises when Blevins tries to steal back his horse, which he lost during a thunderstorm, and eventually John Grady and Lacey are separated from him. However, by this point, events have already transpired that will prove to have major repercussions later down the road.
Meanwhile, John Grady and Lacey land ranch-hand jobs with a wealthy Mexican rancher named Don Hector Rocha y Villarel (Rubén Blades). John Grady impresses Rocha with his knowledge of, and ability to break, wild mustangs. More trouble arises, however, when John Grady falls in love with Alejandra (Penélope Cruz), Rocha's free-spirited daughter. This is just the beginning, however, as the paths of John Grady and Lacey eventually cross again with Jimmy Blevins, except this time in a Mexican jail and at the mercy of a cruel and corrupt police captain.
The screenplay, adapted from McCarthy's National Book Award-winning novel by Ted Tally, who won an Oscar for adapting The Silence of the Lambs, sticks close to the source, lifting entire sections of dialogue verbatim. It is hard to tell, knowing how much of the intended film was left on the editing room floor, just how successful Tally's adaptation was. Several crucial relationships, especially the one between John Grady and Alejandra, don't feel fully formed (some have blamed this on a complete lack of chemistry between Damon and Cruz, an argument that is not without merit). Thus, when they meet up again near the end of the film, the full force of their tragic love affair is not felt.
Part of the problem may be that Matt Damon doesn't feel quite right for the part of John Grady. He plays him as too stoic, and it is only through the moments of physical violence that he exudes any real energy. Henry Thomas works well as Lacey, and Lucas Black, who played a crucial role in Thornton's directorial debut, Sling Blade (1996), is excellent as the young troublemaker Blevins.
Thornton certainly shows he has an eye for beautiful imagery, and the manner in which he and cinematographer Barry Markowitz capture the daunting southwestern landscape would have impressed John Ford. Thornton gives the film scope, but it's lacking a real heart. The characters don't jump out of the screen the way they jumped off McCarthy's pages, and despite a voice-over narration, John Grady's soul-searching introspection is largely lost, with the exception of a brief scene between him and the judge (Bruce Dern) at the end of the film. By then, of course, it is far too late to achieve any real sense of profundity.
©2001 James Kendrick