“I have no honor but my promise”
I shied away from Billy Bob Thornton’s All the Pretty Horses because the Weinsteins had billed it as a romance and all I had read said it was terrible. Now, almost a decade since its release, and the addition of two stellar films based on Cormac McCarthy novels, I had to take a look back. Watching No Country for Old Men and The Road does not give you a feeling that anything written by the guy could be something other than dark and bleak, with the glimmer of hope added in to counteract the rest and, after seeing the film, stored on my DVR for over a year now, I now have one more reason to despise those producing brothers. Cutting down a film to under two hours after the director clocked it at three plus is unconscionable; especially coming from a guy like Thornton who’s previous work, Sling Blade, was critically acclaimed. If this film gets made today, with Matt Damon at the lead and the pedigree of people behind the scenes, the result is much different. The least they can do is release the director’s cut so the world can decide for itself about the quality of the work because, honestly, I really liked the scraps allowed to be seen and can only imagine the masterpiece its full self could be.
John Grady Cole, (Damon), has just lost his grandfather and therefore the farm he has been working on and hoped to run in the future. His father is out of the picture legal-wise and his mother has remarried, looking to relinquish all her father’s possessions now that he is dead. So, it leaves Cole little choice but to find work elsewhere, preferably a ranch where he can work closely with the beasts he loves—horses. Recruiting his best friend Lacey Rawlins, (it’s always a pleasure to see Henry Thomas in films because he is just not used enough compared to his talents), the two set off for Mexico to live a life fit for kings, without any ties to their pasts or restrictions back home. However, a young boy named Jimmy Blevins, riding strong on a horse too good to be his, soon interrupts the journey, starting a chain of events that will weigh heavily on what is to come. Afraid at first to travel with a boy that is obviously being chased for the horse if not himself, the ranch-hands soon let him into their group as they cross country lines, all of them able to start life anew. But there is something about this boy, his horse skills too pure and his shooting too precise, the innocence of youth apparent, yet perhaps hiding something beneath—an unbroken horse himself perhaps? The allusions to the creatures and the disparate freedoms allowed our two species are apparent.
These three men, Lucas Black’s Blevins rounding out the trio, (a Thornton regular I guess, so good that it’s a shame he hasn’t worked more in the past few years since, his best role being in Friday Night Lights), all see the world differently and these perceptions eventually clash and get all in trouble. Rawlins is loyal to a fault, a detriment to his character since sometimes his thoughts are the safest bet. Always quick to point out how letting Blevins in—a loose cannon with an unknown past—could only cause complications, his trust in Cole wins over when his friend, compassionate and unable to abandon another human being, says he’s staying the course to help the boy through his self-inflicted troubles. Whether an omen or just a coincidence to the unluckiness of Blevins, a lightning storm becomes the catalyst for horrors to come. The boy had been struck twice while the bolts had also killed three members of his family. This fear, seemingly the only thing in the world that frightens him, causes him to be careless and allow his horse to run away with his every possession. The three decide to find the horse, upon which Blevins’ temper gets the best of him and soon the entire town wakes up to see them steal the horse and run away. It is in the getaway that they part ways, Cole and Rawlins finding their way onto a renowned ranch, the boy off to who knows where.
And here is where the film, brilliantly orchestrated and acted thus far, starts to pull apart at the seams. What began with a suspenseful edge, leaning into dark territory but never going full force, soon gets turned into a whirlwind romance between Damon and the ranch owner’s daughter Alejandra, played by Penélope Cruz. All troubles seem to melt away as Rawlins enjoys his work and Cole becomes a respected figure in helping Hector de la Rocha breed his horses, while also stealing the heart of his daughter. Whether the original vision goes in more depth with this relationship or not is unknown, but as is, the romance becomes little more than a plot point to use later on when the Americans’ past comes back to bite them. A couple glances and smiles seems to be all that is needed to spawn an everlasting love. For a theme that was used so much in promoting the film, this love vignette is such a small part of the movie, even with all the cuts, as Damon and Thomas soon find themselves arrested and thrown in jail with their old chum Blevins, who naïvely went back to the town where he got back the horse to get his gun as well.
This is where my preconceived notions of a McCarthy story finally show through. Murder becomes a word that is held over the final third of the film, the horrors and fallibilities of man coming to the forefront. Justice throws the truth out the window and retribution becomes the name of the game as the three find themselves in a lot of trouble dealing with violent men in the Mexican police force as well as the local penitentiary. Young Black shows the power of his performance in these moments, stealing every scene—which says something by going against two wonderful turns from Damon and Thomas. Survival now becomes the ability to do whatever is necessary; these Texan boys just wanted a good life without trouble, but all they found was violence and cruelty. It takes all Cole’s energy to try and stay true to his morals while still being able to keep his life as well.
It is so obvious that most edits took place in this portion of the movie. It seems as though every ten-minute interlude is dissolved to black, soon opening onto a new scene that screams how something was missed. Emotions aren’t allowed to breath and we get thrown from thinking all is lost to—BAM—all is looking up. The awkward pacing is felt and that is the biggest shame because it occurs when the story revs up. The shots become a little more abstract with laughing Mexican men and over-exposed scenes of an otherworldly state while the story becomes more rushed every second, trying to jam everything needed in, culminating in its bittersweet conclusion, one that would turn off so many hoping to see the romantic drama they thought they were. Of course it had to be the interesting part of the story that the Weinsteins deemed too much for the film-going public. I know I could love this film; I just hope one day they’ll give me the chance by letting it out in its entirety.
All the Pretty Horses 8/10 | ★ ★ ★