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All The Pretty Horses

Billy Bob Thornton's All The Pretty Horses could serve as a textbook illustration of the perils of literary adaptations: Though it remains faithful to the letter of Cormac McCarthy's novel, it captures none of the spirit. In fact, its greatest flaw may be that it has no spirit at all. Horses discards McCarthy's elegiac closing-of-the-frontier tone for a Classics Illustrated-style and-then-this-happened approach that makes for an effective crib of the novel but a poor film. Opening in 1949 Texas, Horses follows Matt Damon and Henry Thomas as they set out in search of open country in Mexico. Along the way, they encounter and part ways with a troubled underage drifter (Lucas Black, co-star of Thornton's Sling Blade) before finding employment on a horse ranch run by Rubén Blades. Before long, Damon and Penélope Cruz strike up a romance confined almost entirely to a montage sequence that flies by in half the time of a trip to the concession stand. This points to another of Horses' serious flaws: If the rumors are true, the release version has been hacked out of a much longer cut, and if that's not the case, it still plays like an awkwardly paced hack job. Before the opening credits have finished rolling, Damon has set off for Mexico. Given little chance to develop his character at the outset, he remains a cipher, his romance with Cruz powered more by magazine-cover magnetism than any element within the film itself. Worse, when Damon and Thomas run afoul of the law, Horses morphs into a movie in the Brokedown Palace mold, complete with an exotic setting and disreputable ethnic types eager to put the screws to hapless Americans. This development is far removed from McCarthy's story, which he carefully positioned within Mexico's complicated history. It could be argued that some elements of the novel don't translate well to the screen, but then, why bother adapting it in the first place? Under Thornton's watch, what's essentially a boy's adventure tale meticulously wrapped in melancholy, Hemingway-esque prose and invested with a remarkable feel for time and place reverts back to a mere oats-and-pistols story, a long, slow ride toward a sun that threatens never to set.


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