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by: Michael Dequina

If there's anything Billy Bob Thornton's All the Pretty Horses can't be accused of, it's having a title that lies. From its first image of lovely equine specimens charging along, the horses are indeed pretty--not just a few, but all of those seen in the film. In fact, with a few exceptions (to be addressed later), the images in this adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's bestseller are absolutely stunning to behold.

That said, all the other charges commonly leveled against this film--slow, dull, etc.--are not simply justified, but wholly, richly deserved. Much ink has been spilled on how director Thornton initially turned in a four-hour cut of the film, which so freaked original U.S. distributor Columbia that they switched domestic duties with their co-producer, Miramax, which was originally set to handle the international push. While the uninvolving slog that is Horses' current incarnation doesn't exactly whet my appetite for a director's cut DVD, I can certainly see that longer version being a better film.

That's because Horses, as it stands, appears to be a hollow shell--the frame of a story that either hasn't had a chance to fully gestate or a more full-bodied beast that was ultimately stripped down to the bare essentials. Given the film's well-publicized history, the latter is more than likely the case. Matt Damon plays John Grady Cole, a young man in 1949 Texas whose lifelong ranch home is being sold by his mother following the death of his grandfather. So Cole and his best friend Lacey Rawlins (Henry Thomas) head south of the border in search for some adventure, but instead they find trouble--first in the form of a hotheaded teen companion named Jimmy Blevins (Lucas Black)--and, for Cole, romance: namely, Alejandra (Penelope Cruz), the daughter of the wealthy man (Rubén Blades) who owns the ranch where the pair eventually settle.

The pacing is slack, but Thornton and scripter Ted Tally's basic narrative flow is fine and fluid as the story moves from its varied and well-photographed (by Barry Markowitz) locations: the vast Texas expanse; the ranch in Mexico with its (yes) pretty horses; the dark, dirty prison where Cole and Rawlins find themselves with Blevins later in the story. Yet the film feels like a series of Big Dramatic Moments strung together, skipping over the smaller details that gave said moments resonance in the first place. This is especially the case with the dud that is the Cole/Alejandra romance, which is uncomfortably thrust into center stage in the final act. I'm guessing that in the film's longer version, the love story feels less forced--maybe even not at all--and the intended emotional connection between the lovers and between them and the audience registers more strongly.

Or perhaps it doesn't, for based on what made this cut, the casting of inexplicable Next Big Thing Cruz is a lost cause. It's not so much an issue of she and Damon not having chemistry--and let it be known that together they are as exciting as watching paint crack and peel--than it is her performance in general (though she can cry on cue very well): stiff; robotic; flat as her body. That leads me to another big element of the mystifying hype surrounding Cruz; she has to be the most unattractive so-called "beautiful" person to grace the screen in ages. Thornton's often close-up camera is incredibly unforgiving on her not-even-close-to-being-as-pretty-as-the-horses face, and the crows whose feet are planted around her eyes squawk for makeup assistance.

The other principals in the cast are better, but not too much better. The work of Damon and Thomas leans more toward the functional than exceptional side, with Thomas making a stronger impression in a fairly thankless part. Trumping both of them in a sadly smaller part is Black, who, with his strong work dating all the way back to his days on the short-lived mid-'90s TV series American Gothic to Thornton's own Sling Blade,


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