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All the Pretty Horses (2000)


All the Pretty Horses reminds me of a bad comedian telling a joke. He begins with an awful set-up and takes forever introducing the characters. If you’re lucky, he stumbles into the narrative within five minutes. By the time he’s arrived at the punch line, you don’t care. You’ve forgotten the setup altogether.

Billy Bob Thornton’s latest film, which examines a Texas cowboy trying to find his dreams in 1949 Mexico, is a tale I might have been interested in. But like that lousy comedian, Thornton’s delivery positively stinks. And, what’s worse, I couldn’t find the punch line anywhere.

Matt Damon stars as the intrepid cowboy who gets a chance to work at a spacious Mexican ranch. However, his trip gets rough when he starts sleeping with his boss’ daughter (Penélope Cruz, Woman on Top) and gets arrested for associating with a murderous teen (Lucas Black, Crazy in Alabama).

What I’m offering you is the condensed version of the plot. The movie is really broken into four sections: The trip on horseback to Mexico, love and work on the range, prison hardships, and personal redemption. All four have potential. All four disappoint.

The problem is that Thornton focuses his attention in the wrong places. He offers shot after shot of nature’s goodies: Wild horses, intimidating canyons, and spacious plains. Everything takes a back seat to aesthetics (five minutes of Damon and buddy Henry Thomas taming horses!), a maneuver that grows exceedingly tedious as the movie trudges to its merciful end.

By stressing style over substance, Thornton also diverts much-needed attention away from his characters. Cruz and Damon’s romance becomes nothing more than a hushed montage of scenes featuring secret lovers, and Thomas and Damon’s friendship can’t survive the sparse dialogue they share.

Even when there’s a peak in the action, which isn’t often, Thornton doesn’t capitalize on it. I thought the movie would take off when Thomas and Damon go to prison, or when Damon and Cruz reunite. But Thornton’s love of slow motion photography and threatening, lengthy conversations shatters any such hopes.

The actors, and there are some good ones here, appear at a total loss for what to do. The weightiness of Thornton’s approach means there’s no character that can make the material meaningful, especially Damon’s. In fact, Damon shouldn’t be in this movie. It’s easy to see why the girls love him. He’s got milky skin and teeth that are so white they border on florescent. He’s cute. Adorable. And though Damon has been good in other movies, his presence here bothered me. He’s more of a Backstreet Boy than a cowboy.

If there’s any upside to All the Pretty Horses it’s that Penélope Cruz is absolutely sparkling. You can see why any cowpoke would fall in love with her, and why Hollywood is touting her as someone to watch.

But that doesn’t mean you should invest eight bucks on the movie. Just remember who’s telling the story.

All the pretty boys, er, horses.