In All the Pretty Horses, set in the mid-1940s, Texas youth John Grady Cole (Matt Damon) goes to Mexico too. Cole, who's been raised by Mexican help on a ranch and speaks fluent Spanish, talks his friend Rawlins (Henry Thomas) into riding south of the border with him to find work on a Mexican ranch. Neither of them says it -- if memory serves, the movies are never mentioned in the film -- but what they're searching for is a cowboy life that looks more the way it does in the movies.
As it looks in this movie, for instance, and that's part of what's wrong with All the Pretty Horses. It's based on the much-admired 1992 novel by Cormac McCarthy, a Faulkner/Larry McMurtry hybrid who has built a reputation reinventing the literary western with blood-soaked, myth-dashing honesty. McCarthy's prose, with its long, careening, conjunction-riddled descriptive sentences alternating with terse dialogue, can be exhausting to read, but also rewarding.
For the film version, director Billy Bob Thornton hasn't tried to find a cinematic equivalent to the fierce modernism of McCarthy's style. He's busy making mythic western images in the manner of John Ford or George Stevens and, with the help of cinematographer Barry Markowitz, doing a nice job of it. But he falls into the same artistic trap that Cole and Rawlins fall into literally. He can't resist turning the New West into the Old West: Under the opening titles, we see herds of pretty horses rumbling past the camera, and before long the soaring music starts.
Thornton presumably would argue that he's showing us the west that Cole sees in his mind's eye. But we don't need to see that; we've already been to the movies. The story is about the Cole's disillusionment, but visually the film seems to support his romantic notions.
Still, if All the Pretty Horses is too much a traditional western, it does at least look for a while as if it's going to be a good traditional western. Just before Cole and Rawlins cross the Rio Grande, they meet one more fugitive from America and the 20th century: Blevins (the excellent Lucas Black of Sling Blade, Thornton's first directorial effort), a teenage runaway on an apparently stolen horse. Once in Mexico, Blevins loses his mount and his gun, and his newfound friends try to help him recover them. Their plans go awry, Blevins disappears, and Cole and Rawlins get their ranch jobs.
The rancher (Rubén Blades) -- surprise! -- turns out to have a beautiful daughter. And the minute she comes riding tempestuously onscreen, in the person of Almodovar beauty Penélope Cruz, the movie falls apart. This isn't because there's anything particularly wrong with Cruz's acting. But the deep, profound and passionate love that arises rather abruptly between her and Cole, and which is supposed to be the cause of all the suffering that follows, just isn't convincing. Damon and Cruz have no chemistry between them. Though he seems a little too old for the role, Damon has a touchingly unassuming aw-shucks manner, and when he talks with Thomas or Black, or even with his love interest's hard-assed aunt (played by the always superb Miriam Colon), there's a sense of intimacy and connection. When he and Cruz look at each other, it couldn't have less meaning. A couple of times Thornton tries to stir up some romance by whirling the camera around Damon's head as he watches Cruz sweep past, but to no avail.
But it likely wouldn't matter much even if the two of them steamed up the screen. Once the inevitable separation of the lovers has occurred, the movie scatters into a string of confusing episodes: an arrest, a killing, a stint in a hellish Saltillo penitentiary, a return to the ranch, a reunion with the rancher's daughter, violent revenge. It all feels disorienting and truncated, as if the script, by Ted Tally, who also adapted Silence of the Lambs, were a harried summary of the book.
This effect is probably explained, at least in part, by reports that Thornton's original cut of the film ran well over three hours. There's no reason to assume that Thornton's cut would have been a classic, but it might at least have been coherent. A three-hour movie beats a two-hour highlight reel any day.