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They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?



All the Pretty Horses, Billy Bob Thornton’s second directorial effort (his first was Sling Blade) doesn’t have one-tenth the surprise or charm of the exchange he had with Jay Leno a few nights ago.

    
“I heard a rumor,” Leno started, “that you like to wear your wife’s panties.” Thorton’s wife being Angelina Jolie.

    
“Oh, yeah. Right,” Billy Bob said.

    
“What? That’s true?” Leno said.

    
“Oh, yeah. Absolutely.”

    
“You know, if you can fit into them, that doesn’t say a whole lot that’s good about you.” Nudge, nudge.

    
“Well, they don’t fit, Jay,” Billy Bob said, turning to face his host. “That’s exactly why she likes it when I wear them.” Thorton was honest; he was surprising. It was sexy.

    
It’s not that All the Pretty Horses doesn’t feature the components of on-screen excitement: it’s got forbidden passion, a supporting cast of meddling fathers and aunts, corrupt police officers, machismo, class tensions and lots of horseback riding. But somehow these elements never combine and combust — they just coexist, and not all that harmoniously. It’s not just that the movie is packed to distraction with several competing narrative lines and moral messages. What’s more problematic is that it lacks the most important element for any successful story of taboo love: believability. To buy this movie, you have to believe that the lead characters feel the kind of love that inspires men to invent flying machines and go mad, love that leads to suicide and world wars and forest fires. And although All the Pretty Horses has just about every other ingredient imaginable, it’s missing that one that’s essential as salt.

    
Set in the 1940s, the film tells the story of John Grady Cole (Matt Damon), a young Texan whose mother has just sold the family farm to an oil company. Heartbroken and jobless, John decides to take his horse and ride to Mexico, where he knows he can get work as a cattle rancher, and he convinces his best friend Lacey Rawlins (Henry Thomas) to come with. Despite some trouble and misfortune along the way, they manage to get to Mexico. It’s a country, in this movie, that’s both rule-bound and lawless; a place where gringos are either admired as hard-working heroes, or vilified as liars and thieves. (Wish all you want for a more balanced portrayal of the post–World War II relationship between Americans and Mexicans; you’re not gonna get it.) John and Lacey find work on an enormous ranch owned by Don Hector Rocha (Ruben Blades), whose riches include an unspeakable number of gorgeous and untamed horses, a private airplane and a rebellious daughter named Alejandra (Penelope Cruz).

    
Even if you haven’t seen the previews, you know from the moment Alejandra rides onto the screen that she and John are going to get it on — partly because they’re played by the most famous actors on screen and partly because they look at each other with that lingering, slightly glazed-over eye contact that inevitably means ‘true love’ in movieland. After watching each other for a few days, the two meet up at a local barn dance where they confess their mutual mad attraction. In no time, Alejandra’s sneaking out of her father’s house and showing up at John’s quarters late at night, to take him on moonlit horseback rides. But the young lovers barely have enough time to invent pet names for each other when Alejandra’s aunt pulls John aside and orders him to quit riding her niece.

    
“This is another country,” she tells him. “Here a woman’s reputation is all she has.”

    
The sweethearts — so deeply in the throes of emotion, supposedly — don’t, can’t, stop their late-night carrying-on and so before you know it, John gets picked up by the police and sent off to a brutal prison. In order to save John from the prison and certain death, Alejandra must promise not to see him again.

    
For any of this to affect us emotionally, we’d have to believe in the passion that’s burning like a grease fire between the two of them. But this love only develops over the course of a few scenes that lean heavily on the power of shallow gimmicks. Instead of dialogue, we get silent looks; instead of scenes that might deepen our understanding of their bond, we get evocatively lit musical montages. Plus, horse metaphors. Maybe none of that would matter if Thorton had stuck with the formula that worked so exquisitely for him in Sling Blade, and cast himself in the lead role. As it is, Damon and Cruz seem more like a couple on a mismatched blind date than renegades fighting love’s sweet battles.

    
Take the first night they spend alone. Alejandra brings John, via horseback, to a lake in the woods, and there, after exchanging a long series of wordless and oddly dispassionate glances, they strip off their clothes and jump in. Naked and wet in the middle of the moonlit pond, they press their bodies together and kiss. And . . . nothing, or next to nothing. Despite — or more likely, because of — all the foolproof romantic gimmicks at work here, this first poison kiss is pretty unconvincing. It’s one of those standard tilted-head, closed-eyes lip-chewers; the actors push their fingers through each other’s hair, they bob their heads, they keep their eyeballs motionless in the sockets. Apart from its thrillessness, the scene boasts nothing to distinguish it from a thousand other Hollywood smooches.

    
It’s not that the film didn’t make me feel anything; it did. Screening it while George W. was in the midst of making his final cabinet appointments, I couldn’t help feeling disturbed — maybe twenty years from now, bright-eyed American Studies types will be linking the appearance of this film with the emergence of a Bush Jr. era characterized by blind American arrogance. The world All the Pretty Horses creates is one in which white men (like Lacey and John) are thoroughly and unfairly maligned and misunderstood by the rigid, vengeful Mexicans among whom they live. They’re accused of crimes they didn’t commit; they’re unfairly punished for doing what, to them, seems undeniably honest — like keeping a promise to a lover or defending the rights of a friend. Meanwhile, the film’s race relations are thoroughly Condoleeza Rice-ified. The story identifies a few individual Mexicans to love while more generally defaming Mexican culture, all the while complacently celebrating the American criminal justice system as North America’s most moral, fair and orderly place.

    
In the midst of this wasteland of bad loving and bad politics, however, flash unexpected moments of beauty. Lucas Black, for example — the youngster who co-starred with Thorton in Sling Blade — plays, with a fiercely convincing hostility, a runaway teenage cowboy that John and Lacey meet on their way to Mexico. Meanwhile, Ruben Blades’ steady, quietly charming portrayal of Rocha had me hurdling over narrative obstacles to join him on the side of rebel villainy. And although the film generally struggles to keep up with the book’s evocative, and distinctly textual, poetic power, it occasionally makes up for these inadequacies with cinematic skill — there are, in particular, a series of freshly dazzling montages of glimmery, golden-haired stallions galloping across Western prairies.

    
But these freckles of diversion can’t charm away the movie’s bigger flaws. And, after dragging through two hours of recycled, narrow characterizations, it ends on an ominous, loveless note. If only John had tried on a pair of Alejandra’s panties. At least it would have been something different.


For more Rachel Mattson, read:

Boygirl, Boygirl
Drive: A Suburban Mystery
The Sum of the Parts: Showtime’s “Sex in the Twentieth Century”
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