Adapted by Ted Tally ("The Silence of the Lambs") from the first novel in Cormac McCarthy's renowned "Border Trilogy," "All The Pretty Horses" is a kind existential 20th-century Western centering on the coming-of-age odyssey of a young Texan named John Grady Cole (Matt Damon) who finds himself down-and-out at the very time that most Americans are beginning to enjoy post-World War II prosperity. No sooner has Cole's father passed away than his mother sells the family ranch, leaving him without home or inheritance. But Cole sees opportunity in his misfortune and heads off for Mexico in search of work as a cowpoke, enlisting his pal Lacey Rawlins (Henry Thomas) to join him.
Along the way the pair meets up briefly with an impetuous, trouble-prone youth named Jimmy Blevins (Lucas Black of "Sling Blade"), tolerating his colorful indiscretions as best they can before once again going their separate ways. After a time, Cole and Rawlins find their Shangri-la, landing jobs on the ranch of a wealthy landowner named Rocha (Ruben Blades). But trouble follows them here, too, as Cole takes a liking to Rocha's daughter Alejandra (Penélope Cruz), becoming her lover even as he becomes her father's trusted confidant in matters of horse breeding.
A more conventional film might have settled in at this point for a standard-issue "wrong side of the tracks" romance set against the backdrop of big skies and rolling plains (as is falsely suggested by the film's marketing). But Thornton and Cormac are cut from headier cloth--backwater prairie poets with a restless vision of human nature not so easily addressed by the simple language of love. Indeed, what follows is anything but simple or conventional--a series of strange and unexpected turns that end up making an already episodic film seem almost abstract and indecisive.
It would be unfair to speculate to what degree these problems might have been addressed in Thornton's longer cut, though the elliptical nature of the narrative would suggest, at the very least, a general failure to cinematically distill the essence of a thematically vast and complex novel. Not that "All the Pretty Horses" would be the first such film to stumble in attempting such a task. Stephen Frears' 1998 adaptation of Max Evans' similarly themed "The Hi-Lo Country" (which also featured Cruz) fumbled its source material far more clumsily. But Thornton, unlike the English-born Frears, literally lives and breathes cowboy culture, a fact that proves to be the film's saving grace.
Making an astonishingly fluid transition from the low-budget trappings of his Oscar-winning debut film "Sling Blade" to the epic scale of "All the Pretty Horses," Thornton seems to almost direct the film from his subconscious, rendering an authenticity that is consistently invigorating thanks to taut, finely-tuned contributions from both cast and crew (including first-rate music, photography and sound) as well as a handful of surprisingly well-integrated, big-name cameos.
In the end, though, it appears as if Thornton and his studio bosses were never fully on the same page to begin with. That co-financier Columbia chose to dig out a decades-old, classic version of their logo to display at the film's head suggests an underlying hope that Billy Bob would deliver an old-style John Ford/George Stevens picture such as might have starred James Dean or Montgomery Clift. What he apparently gave them instead was straight-up, unadulterated Billy Bob Thornton. Just how much of that film actually remains is the big question. Starring Matt Damon, Henry Thomas, Penélope Cruz and Ruben Blades. Directed by Billy Bob Thornton. Written by Ted Tally. Produced by Billy Bob Thornton and Robert Salerno. A Miramax release. Period Drama. Rated PG-13 for violence and some sexuality. Running time: 116 min.