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'Horses' Reined Too Tightly

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 22, 2000


    'All The Pretty Horses' Penelope Cruz and Matt Damon waltz and woo in "All The Pretty Horses."
(Van Redin/Miramax)
You've got your scope and your sweep, if you're writing an epic novel like "All the Pretty Horses." But scope and sweep are the first casualties in Billy Bob Thornton's movie of the same name – the one that stars Matt Damon, Penelope Cruz and a whole herd of great-looking horses. All right, maybe there's a teeny bit of both. You can't miss with gorgeous John Ford-size vistas of Mexico and Texas. And there's a sense of entering a unique world when Damon's character finds himself stuck (apparently forever) in a crowded Mexican jail. Holy "Papillon" and all that.

But essentially, the S&S content seems rationed in this movie. The reason is simple: There's not enough time to evoke a book like this. (They should have called this "Some of the Pretty Horses.") Reportedly, director Thornton had to hack this thing down from four hours to two. And if that's true, it certainly shows. The essential problem here: These cowboys have to ride, shoot and live between three-dot ellipses.

This is a shame, not only because a good book doesn't get its due, but because "Pretty Horses"-the-movie has some very good moments. Thornton, writer-director of the superb "Slingblade," has a gift for depicting down-and-dirty scenes among men. And when our three principal characters – three cowboys looking for fortune – go riding from Texas to Mexico, this is the best part of the movie.

Damon plays John Grady Cole, a Texan who's forced to find a new life when his mother sells the family ranch. Hooking up with best friend Lacey Rawlins (Henry Thomas), he decides to find fortune south of the border. Along the way, the friends run into Jimmy Blevins (Lucas Black), a strange teenager who's after some indefinable fortune, too.

"Just what in the hell would we want you with us for?" Rawlins asks.

"Coz I'm an American," says the kid.

Despite Rawlins's misgivings, the three cross the Rio Grande and ride into inevitable trouble. The problems start with Blevins, who becomes almost psychotically obsessed with regaining his gun when it's stolen from him; they continue when Cole meets and falls in love with Alejandra (Cruz), the fetching daughter of a wealthy horse owner named Rocha (Ruben Blades). Despite gaining Rocha's confidence and trust as a horse breaker, Cole (who, with Rawlins, is working for Rocha) cannot fight his passion. When they become aware of the romance, Alejandra's relatives take decisive action. Meanwhile Blevins, who was separated from Cole and Rawlins, returns to their lives to cause even more trouble.

The movie, which screenwriter Ted "Silence of the Lambs" Tally adapted from the Cormac McCarthy novel, becomes very episodic and chopped up at this point, as if the filmmakers realized they had only so much time left. That stay in a Mexican jail goes by faster than any jailbird could reasonably hope for. And the romance – the essential part of the movie – doesn't exactly take its sweet time. Our marquee headliners meet, bat eyes at each other, dance, skinny-dip in the moonlight and tumble into bed faster than you can say "Whoa, Cruz sure is beautiful."

In fact, "whoa" seems to be the operating principle. As in: Stop that scene before it takes up any more time, we've got more book to get through. This is too bad, because what we do see of this movie isn't bad at all. Thornton does have a sensual feel for this world. And there's a lovely scene in which Cole breaks horses, while Mexican women and children watch with admiration. It's wonderfully edited, and cinematographer Barry Markowitz's images of those noble, wild, restless horses are exquisite. But like those seething, tethered creatures, this movie is too corralled to gallop across the open prairie of our fancy.

"All the Pretty Horses" (PG-13, 135 minutes) – Contains sexual scenes and violence.


Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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