All the Pretty Horses is adapted from Cormac McCarthy’s novel of the same name, the first of his Border trilogy. McCarthy’s style is both poetic and stoic, with Faulknerian run-on sentences and laconic dialog creating a mood not easy translated to the screen, though writer Ted Tally and director Billy Bob Thornton have made a respectable attempt.
The movie seems closest to the book’s strategy when its characters are wandering through the Western landscapes. Just as McCarthy places his cowpokes’ pithy utterances in a field of rangy prose, Thornton gives them a backdrop of luxuriant scenery. But when the drama moves to a more restricted place — indoors, on a ranch, in a prison — there’s no visual equivalent to McCarthy’s resonant scene setting, and the movie seems to shrink a little and become more ordinary.
The story is set in 1949 and it’s one of those end-of-the-cowboy-era films in the tradition of Lonely are the Brave (1962) and Hud (1963). John Grady Cole (Matt Damon) is a young Texan who, after his family ranch is sold, decides to head south on horseback with his best friend Lacey Rawlins (Henry Thomas). On their way to Mexico, they hook up, reluctantly, with a 16-year-old delinquent named Jimmy Blevins (Lucas Black). Grady and Rawlins end up working for the wealthy Mexican rancher Don Hector (Ruben Blades), who has a beautiful daughter named Alejandra (Penelope Cruz). When she and Grady make first eye contact, you know where things are headed. It’s one of those slowed-down movie glances that foreshadows illicit love and a sad resolution. And if that weren’t enough, there’s that bad-news Blevins waiting in the wings to engender a little bloody chaos.
Apparently this two-hour film was cut from a four-hour version that Thornton (but not the studio) preferred, which would explain why its pace seems both leisurely and choppy. Damon is admirably restrained here, only occasionally flashing his toothy grin, though the chemistry between him and Cruz is nada. Lucas Black as the pint-sized desperado is very good and the scene where he comes to harm is surprisingly moving in a film which, though engaging on an elementary story level, maintains an emotional tone that is, for the most part, coolly distant.
Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for the Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].