Re-Views: 'All the Pretty Horses' (2000)

One of the reasons I started this column was that I was fascinated by the way our opinions change over time. A movie might hit you one way the first time you see it and an entirely different way the next time -- especially if many years have passed in between. That's a normal thing for humans to experience, and I am a normal human.

When you write reviews of movies (or even just keep a movie diary, as many ambitious film geeks do), it gets more interesting. Now you have documented evidence of how you felt about the movie the first time. If you hate it the second time, there's no need to wonder, "Why did I ever like this?" You know why you liked it. You wrote your reasons down!

"All the Pretty Horses," a Western drama from Christmas 2000 directed by Billy Bob Thornton and starring Matt Damon, is what Re-Views was made for. I loved it at the time, and wrote an A- review that ends with, "I haven't walked out of a theater feeling this good in a long time." The movie clearly didn't just impress me on an analytical level, but on a personal, emotional level. I had feelings about it, which is another thing that happens to normal humans.

And then, as is the recurring them in Re-Views, I never watched it again and sort of forgot about it. In the back of my mind, I assumed it was a respectable, well-regarded drama that had simply fallen out of the public consciousness. Imagine my surprise when I poked around a couple weeks ago and discovered that "All the Pretty Horses" was a flop at the box office ($15 million on a $57 million budget) as well as with critics. According to Rotten Tomatoes, only 32% of reviews were positive. One in three! And few were as positive as mine. What was going on here?

What I said then: "Billy Bob Thornton's deliberately paced film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's novel 'All the Pretty Horses' at first seems like the sort of movie that was probably a very good book but isn't transferring well to the big screen. It seems too introspective and too unplotted to be made into something as literal as a movie. At some point along the way, [it] gels, the viewer settles into it, and it becomes a transfixing movie experience on a par with some of the best.... Amazingly, everything becomes cohesive as the film moves toward its finale. It's a movie about a young man's rite of passage, the long, dark night of his soul, the hero's journey, whatever you want to call it. It's nothing obvious -- no Herculean tasks, really -- or sentimental or preachy.... Thornton's directorial style is one of careful, loving devotion. Many devices and scenarios recall the old Western movies, and the fantastic musical score is evocative of a thousand emotions associated with the Old West specifically and the loss of innocence generally.... Matt Damon is at times too pretty to be believed in a role this rugged, but we'll forgive him that because his good-guy persona is perfectly suited to the quiet meritoriousness of John Grady Cole.... I haven't walked out of a theater feeling this good in a long time." Grade: A- [Read the whole review. If you want to. No pressure.]

(Critic nerdiness: Part of the reason I had it in my head that the film got generally good reviews was probably that I remembered how Roger Ebert had loved it, giving it 3.5 stars out of 4. Like most fledgling critics, I had a certain reverence for Ebert in those days, and I felt validated when I agreed with him. What stuck out the most, though, was that his review introduced me to a useful new word: "elegiac." Some data-mining reveals that I've used the word in eight of my own reviews since then. Thanks, Rog!)

The re-viewing: "You ever think about dying?" That's the first line of dialogue, spoken by Henry Thomas (the "E.T." kid, all grown up) to Matt Damon. But the movie isn't existential and ponderous the way that opening line would seem to suggest. Death does figure into things, but the movie's themes are generally more down to earth: growing up, moving forward, being honorable, finding your place in the world, and so forth.

I was completely unfamiliar with Cormac McCarthy in 2000. Since then, I've read "The Road" and "No Country for Old Men" and seen the film adaptations of both. ("The Road" destroyed me, by the way. If you're in the mood to be destroyed, read "The Road.") So it was a nice surprise in "All the Pretty Horses" to hear young Jimmy Blevins say he'd gotten his gun "at the gettin' place" -- the same expression Josh Brolin's character uses in "No Country for Old Men."

A commenter took me to task for the "patronizing" tone of my "All the Pretty Horses" review, in particular for the way I talked about Texas ranch life in 1949 being so un-modern. I shouldn't have made inferences about that time period based only on how the movie portrays it, but that's definitely how the movie portrays it. We are meant to feel like we're seeing the last vestiges of the Old West, and to feel a certain sadness -- an elegiac sadness -- as an old way of life fades away. Whether cars and telephones actually were uncommon on ranches in Texas and Mexico in 1949, I don't know. The film gives the sense that they were.

My original review noted how the movie shifts in tone as it goes along. First it's "a drama about a man searching for his soul"; then it evolves into "a fairly standard forbidden-love thing"; then, after some "intrigue and deceit," it becomes a "psychological thriller." (Hmm. If you ever want to feel like a douche, quote yourself four times in one sentence.) But all of this is OK, I wrote, because "everything becomes cohesive as the film moves toward its finale."

And there it is: the difference between my first viewing of the movie and my second. This time, I didn't feel like the film became cohesive. The interlude with Penelope Cruz's character felt extraneous, and I grew restless with the film's meandering. Instead of being transfixed I was bored. John Grady Cole's journey and eventual redemption are conveyed adequately -- we understand how the character feels, and why -- but not with any particular impact.

In short, whatever the movie did to me in late 2000, it didn't do it to me again in mid 2012. Yet is it fair to cite that as a flaw in the movie? After all, it didn't change between then and now -- I did.

This gets to the very heart of film criticism. You can describe and analyze the craft, comment on what works and what doesn't, make observations about why you believe the movie is or isn't good. But in the end, all you can really do is tell the reader about the experience that you -- you, the critic, personally -- had with the film. And not only is that experience highly subjective, it's subject to change on additional viewings. (Sometimes your feelings stay the same, of course. That's fine too.)

My 2000 review of "All the Pretty Horses" is an accurate account of how I felt at the time. I don't specifically remember walking out of the theater feeling grand -- I don't actually remember anything about that initial screening -- but I apparently did. If I were writing the review today, though, based on seeing the movie in 2012, it would be quite different. Who knows, maybe I'll watch it again in 2024 and have a third entirely different reaction.

Do I still love this movie? I do not. Though it's well-acted, and the wide open landscapes beautifully photographed, and the vanishing way of life poignantly conveyed, the film wanders around in too introspective a manner for its messages to sink in. But I admire the maturity and craftsmanship on display, and I was enraptured by the first 45 minutes or so. It's something Thornton and Damon can be proud of, if not the first thing they'll list on their resumes. Grade: B-