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All The Pretty Horses (2000)

September 24th, 2007 · 1 Comment

“Miramax is brilliant at publicizing its successes, but it’s even more brilliant at burying its failures,” said Dennis Rice, their former president of marketing. Miramax Films was notorious for test screening its movies – often in malls in New Jersey – and barely releasing the ones that scored poorly. Some went straight to video, even those with major stars. Here’s a look at some of the studio’s B-sides, bombs and greatest misses.

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In 1949, John Grady Cole (Matt Damon) learns that the family spread in San Angelo has fallen into the hands of his estranged mother. She intends to sell the land to an oil company. “It’s a sorry piece of business, but son, not everybody thinks that life on a cattle ranch in West Texas is the second best thing to dyin and goin to heaven,” her sympathetic lawyer (Sam Shepard) tells him.

John sells his friend Lacey Rawlins (Henry Thomas) on the idea of seeking adventure in Mexico. Lighting off on their horses, the young men inherit a tagalong named Blevins (Lucas Black) who’s run away with a horse and a pistol worth too much for him to handle. They cross the Rio Grande, and Blevins’ horse escapes in a storm. The kid steals it back, while John and Lacey are hired on at the ranch of horse breeder Hector de la Rocha (Ruben Blades).

John gains el jefe’s trust with his horse breeding acumen, but trouble arises when he falls for the boss’ headstrong daughter Alejandra (Penélope Cruz). Her aunt (Miriam Colon) warns John to keep away from her. Luisa sleeps with him anyway, and John is dragged off with his buddy Lacey by a police captain (Julio Oscar Mechoso). In jail, they’re reunited with Blevins. Since they last saw him, the kid has shot and killed three men.

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Production history 
Cormac McCarthy‘s 1992 novel All The Pretty Horses was the first work in the author’s Border Trilogy, which later included The Crossing and Cities On The Plain. MGM/UA head John Calley purchased the screen rights for Mike Nichols. Ted Tally adapted a screenplay, but in typical fashion for Nichols, he decided he didn’t want to direct it. Calley suggested Billy Bob Thornton for the job, and on the set of Primary Colors, Nichols gave the script to the actor.

Thornton wasn’t familiar with the book, but loved westerns. He brought in Tom Epperson to rewrite the script and met with Leonardo DiCaprio about starring. But Thornton was nervous about the cost; he’d shot his directorial debut Sling Blade for $1 million and was concerned that a production budgeted at 50 times that would be taken away from him. Columbia – who was now producing – wanted an epic prestige film for the holidays. They told Thornton not to worry about cost.

With Matt Damon in the lead, shooting wrapped in June 1999. Thornton edited the length down to what he felt was a presentable length and screened it for Calley and Nichols. The movie ran 220 minutes long. Dennis Rice called it “the most self-indulgent director’s cut I’ve ever seen.” Test screened by Columbia at the Sherman Oaks Galleria, the audience scores were disastrous. But Thornton refused to alter it, and the film’s Christmas 1999 release came and went.

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Miramax Films held options on Thornton’s next three films as director and Harvey Weinstein had brokered an equity stake in All The Pretty Horses. Sensing they had a disaster on their hands, Columbia traded domestic distribution with Miramax, in exchange for the international rights. Thornton was now Weinstein’s problem. The studio chairman forced the director to cut the picture from 220 minutes down to “a Cliff Notes version” of 115 minutes.

Finally released on Christmas Day 2000 on 1,400 screens, All The Pretty Horses received respectable critical notices, but bombed with audiences, grossing only $15 million in the U.S. When approached by Weinstein with the opportunity to release a director’s cut for the DVD, Thornton turned him down, reportedly over not being allowed to restore the original musical score by Daniel Lanois. Thornton hasn’t directed a movie since.

Whatever vision Thornton had about unrequited love on a horse ranch in postwar Mexico lies in an editing bay somewhere. The 115-minute version has a great performance by Matt Damon – who broods and mutters like a Texan – but the rest of the cast is reduced to superficial cameos. All The Pretty Horses makes as much sense as an elegant novel that’s had 105 pages ripped out. What’s left is a sad, orphaned film in need of restoration. Miramax: Free Billy Bob!

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All The Pretty Horses isn’t bad, per se; it’s just a film you have to be in the right mood to see. Deliberately slowly paced, it’s not for the faint-hearted. Or the sleepy. Or those unimpressed by repetitious slow motion cuts and meandering storytelling,” writes Rose “Bams” Cooper at 3BlackChicks Review.

Michael W. Phillips Jr. at goatdog’s movies says, “The book was like a daydream of a hazy, distant past. Something about trying to recreate that dreaminess on film seems like an exercise in futility. Thornton tries, fails some of the time, and succeeds often enough to make the film worth watching.” He gives it 3 out of 5 goats.

“It’s apparent early on that this is as much an ode to simple life on the unspoiled range as it is a film with a story to tell. And this is a good thing, as the storyline is easily the film’s weakest element,” writes Brian Webster at Apollo Movie Guide.

© Joe Valdez

Tags: Based on novel · Coming of age · Road trip · Shot In Texas · Western

1 response so far ↓

  • 1 jess // Feb 1, 2008 at 2:53 pm

    this was very interesting thank you for that

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