Faced with a choice of blunt instruments with which to beat a good book into a bad movie, director Billy Bob Thornton chooses heavy, random, arty imagery and a leaden pace to thwack All the Pretty Horses.
Cormac McCarthy’s bestselling, award-winning 1992 novel tells of John Grady Cole (Matt Damon) and Lacey Rawlins (Henry Thomas), a couple of teenagers (well, in the book they’re 16; in life the actors are both pushing 30) who saddle up and ride away from home-front problems in parched 1949 West Texas. On the trail, the pair are ”adopted” by a mysterious, bad-news kid who calls himself Jimmy Blevins (Lucas Black of the authentic twang, grown some since his collaboration with Thornton as the kid in Sling Blade), and therein lies trouble. Crossing the border to Mexico, Cole and Rawlins find work as wranglers on the ranch of a rich man (Ruben Blades), where Cole falls in love with the owner’s beautiful daughter, Alejandra (Penelope Cruz), and therein lies even more trouble.
In the book, dialogue saunters on bareback with no quotation marks, and McCarthy’s narrative is as idiosyncratically textured as rawhide.
Yet what’s exciting and restless on the page is inert on screen. The dialect-coached set-piece exchanges between Damon and Thomas fall flat (the script by Ted Tally heaves chunks of dialogue from the page like clods of earth), while the smoky, sexy danger meant to rise off of Alejandra is tamped and banked. Some of this is the fault of bland and miscast principals – Damon, in particular, generating his all-weather expression of earnestness, does not look at ease anywhere near either wild horses or wild women, while Spanish-born Cruz’s spiciness has been tempered for Anglo tastes – but most of it is the fault of ungainly pastiche direction: Perhaps Thornton didn’t know what he wanted from scene to scene and where he wanted to arrive at in the end, or perhaps too many cooks stuck their spoons in the gazpacho in the course of cooking up this ”prestige picture.”
Either way, the pacing drags painfully. Shots signifying nothing – a close-up on a horse’s eyeball, or selected Mexicans with worn Faces of Character staring at the camera for reasons known only to Dios – are held for small eternities, as if purdy photography were an end in itself. The trail from one plot advance to the next is so badly mapped as to leave anyone unfamiliar with the novel back in the dust. (Cole is in jail, he’s out of jail: why and why?) A desperately busy soundtrack, meanwhile, ensures that no one gets a moment’s silent peace.
By the time All the Pretty Horses digresses to introduce a grinning ethnic local demonstrating a soft-shoe shuffle like an extra on Twin Peaks, McCarthy’s rawhide has become movie Naugahyde, a substance unknown in literature or in nature. D+
– Lisa Schwarzbaum
All the Pretty Horses STARRING Matt Damon Penelope Cruz MIRAMAX RATED PG-13 112 MINUTES