When Cormac McCarthy's best-selling novel "All the Pretty Horses" was published in 1992, the author was praised for his lyrical and evocative prose that romanticized the small details of life in the American Southwest. Whether it was the simple act of smoking a cigarette or saddling a horse, the elegant cadence of McCarthy's narrative style helped these otherwise mundane events seem larger-than-life.
In the years following its release, the rights for the novel bounced around Hollywood, drifting from studio to studio, director to director, until it finally landed at the House of Miramax, and into the lap of Billy Bob Thornton ("Sling Blade"). With much-lauded source material, a gifted writer/director at the helm, and the pairing of Hollywood heartthrob Matt Damon ("The Legend of Bagger Vance") with stunning Spanish beauty Penelope Cruz ("Open Your Eyes"), how could the film adaptation of "All the Pretty Horses" go wrong? Unfortunately, in making the transition to the big screen, Thornton and his scribe Ted Tally ("Silence of the Lambs") forgot that the printed page and motion pictures are two entirely different mediums. In their attempt to cover the entire book in the space of a two-hour film, they end up with a meandering film that fails to satisfy, let alone hold one's attention for its two hour-plus running time.
For those of you unfamiliar with the book, the story is a modern Western in which two young cowboys, John Grady Cole (Damon) and his best friend Lacey Rawlins (Henry Thomas of "E.T. The Extra Terrestrial" fame), cross the border from Texas into Mexico, seeking adventure and fortune in where they believe is the last remnant of the Old West. Along the way, they are joined by a barely pubescent boy named Jimmy Blevins (Lucas Black of "Sling Blade"), who they are both suspicious of, since he is riding a horse that seems to be beyond his means. Their fears are justified when Jimmy loses his horse during a thunderstorm, and then tries to steal it back from the man who hijacked it. While being given chase by local law enforcement, John and Lacey are separated from their newfound friend, as Jimmy decides to lead their pursuers astray down a trail.
With neither hide nor hair of Jimmy to be found in the days following the incident, John and Lacey continue their journey into Mexico, where they end up as hired hands on the ranch of Don Hector Rocha y Villarel (Ruben Blades of "Cradle Will Rock"). Sharing Don's passion for raising horses, John quickly rises up the ranks when he is put in charge of breeding Don's newest stallion with one of his finer mares. Unfortunately, John also catches the eye of Don's daughter Alejandra (Cruz), and their forbidden courtship leads to some stern warnings from Alejandra's aunt (Miriam Colon of "Lone Star") and some intervention from her overprotective father.
Thornton captures the atmosphere of the novel with the help of his cinematographer Barry Markowitz (who also worked on "Sling Blade"), using a wide palate of visual styles. It is quite a beautiful film to watch, especially in contrast to Thornton's directorial debut "Sling Blade", which was more economical in how the compositions were framed. Using sunswept vistas, judicious slow-motion, and even arresting cutaways to emphasize how John's state of mind filters his perspective on events around him, Thornton seems to have successfully translated the book's loving use of the English language into the confines of a motion picture. This is further aided by Marty Stuart's rousing score, calls to mind the Westerns of yesteryear.
Unfortunately, "All the Pretty Horses" tries to cover too much ground with its ambitious script, and pivotal events in the book wind up being diced down into Reader's Digest-size helpings that lack the emotional resonance one would expect. Most noticeable is the lukewarm relationship between John and Alejandra, that fizzles when it should sizzle, which is also due in part to the lack of chemistry between Damon and Cruz. Had the script concentrated on fleshing out the dynamics of their relationship, instead of trying also trying to include the story's epilogue back in Texas, perhaps the film would have had more impact.
"All the Pretty Horses" may have lots of pretty pictures, but that alone does not make for a good film. In the shadow of Thornton's "Sling Blade", which was more focused on character and story, this latest effort is a disappointment, and one would probably be better off reading the book instead.