I grew up on horseback in the Red River Valley of Minnesota, reading Louis L’Amour stories with stoic, rugged characters. John Grady Cole, protagonist in All the Pretty Horses, is a kid seeking a new life and meaning in the world. Cole, a 16-year-old Texan, travels to Mexico on horseback with his trusted friend Lacey Rawlins. Along the way, they meet different characters who shape the course of their adventures. The search for identity is a major theme in many great novels and John Grady Cole seeks his identity with passion and heart.
The story is at once a coming-of-age tale and a western, but written with descriptions of landscapes and horses that are often breathtaking and finely detailed. McCarthy’s unusual predilection for leaving out punctuation and brief dialogue enhances the personalities, or lack thereof, of the characters he creates. In a story filled with starkness and violence, McCarthy is also able to include humor, especially the early passages with Jimmy Blevins, the suspicious youth who follows the boys on his magnificent horse. The mood and character of this novel make it enjoyable to read. McCarthy writes beautifully, paying attention to the details that make up the simple action of putting a saddle on a horse or lighting up a cigarette. McCarthy is able to create a peaceful atmosphere while incorporating violent events. However, at all times, John Grady Cole remains the focus, and it was his personal journey that sustains the motion of the novel. John Grady has his benefactors, namely his sidekick Rawlins and his lover, the blue-eyed Alejandra, and more importantly, his detractors, in the form of Alejandra’s aunt and the cruel captain. These secondary characters shape his journey, directing him toward bleakness and beauty, honor and revenge, nothingness and all-encompassing love.
The hero leaves behind his childhood and, when his journey comes to a full circle, he is elevated to a higher level, a magnificence that McCarthy associates with the beautiful horses whose essence sustain John Grady Cole throughout. Cole’s actions were honorable and unselfish at the end, yet the wisdom and maturity that he attains come at a terrible price. Cole’s journey of the search for his identity is full of wondrous imagery of deep colors and dream metaphors and conveys profound lessons of loyalty and self-discovery. That self-discovery is far from exemplified in the movie production of All the Pretty Horses.
“All the Pretty Horses” is a frustrating piece of work. The western, an adaptation of the acclaimed novel by Cormac McCarthy and directed by Billy Bob Thornton, starts off great, introducing two appealing cowboys and carefully establishing the dynamics of their relationship, then adding a third, enormously likable bad boy to the mix. But, just when the production gets rolling, the movie separates the threesome and fractures, splintering into a series of rushed vignettes.
The movie, like the novel, focuses on the two young Texans, Lacey Rawlins (Henry Thomas) and John Grady Cole (Matt Damon), who ride their horses across the Mexican border on an adventure. 16-year-old Jimmy Blevins (Lucas Black), who is 13 in the novel, joins them briefly before getting into some serious trouble for alleged horse stealing. Lacey and John end up at the large ranch of Don Hector Rocha (Ruben Blades), where they go to work as cowboys. The basic plot in the novel is shown in the movie but the self-discovery and search for identity is lost.
Damon, looking lean and eager, creates a persona that neatly blends practical skills with a romanticized outlook, while “E.T.” veteran Thomas is quite strong as Lacey, Cole’s pragmatic, but good-humored buddy. Together, they make a great team and exemplifies the characters in the novel, however look older than 16.
Shortly before crossing the Rio Grande into Mexico, the guys meet up with trouble on a stick, in the form of young Jimmy Blevins, a twerp whose gunplay is as good as his grammar is bad. Perched atop a horse that is probably stolen, Jimmy leeches onto the duo despite their attempts to shake him. Black is wonderful, stealing scenes and giving the whole production a greater sense of authenticity and follows the novels underlying humor closely. After losing “his” horse in a hilarious lightning storm scene, Jimmy spots someone else with the steed and decides to steal it back. During the chase that follows, Jimmy splits off from Cole and Lacey, taking a goodly portion of the film’s vitality with him. The scene where Blevins steals back his horse and pistol holds some discrepancies from the novel, like location and specific events with his pistol but overall, it captures the stubbornness and personality of Jimmy Blevins.
After loosing Blevins, The guys hire on as hands at a massive ranch owned by the aristocratic Rocha, where, in one of the best segments in the movie, they prove remarkably adept at breaking horses, just as Billy Bob Thornton begins to display his lack of proficiency in the editing department. Cole becomes friends with Rocha, while Lacey fades inexplicably into the background, taking more of the film’s vitality with him. From here on, the film adopts a choppy vignette motif.
What suffers most from the translation of the novel to the movie is the romance between cowpoke John Grady Cole and Alejandro, the daughter of a powerful rancher. The chemistry is lacking and there is not enough sufficient time for the viewer to accept their relationship. Their relationship goes from a shared glance, to a love of a lifetime in less time than it takes to put your spurs on. Alejandra (Penelope Cruz), is there for the sole purpose of providing a brief love interest to the story, which is much more passionate and developed in the novel. Damon and Cruz show absolutely no chemistry whatsoever on the screen, and the beautiful Cruz is completely wasted in her part. The romance between Cole and Alejandra not only doesn’t have any sparks, it rarely even smolders. After Alejandra’s aunt warns Cole, “Here, a woman’s reputation is all she has,” it cuts to the young lovers skinny-dipping. However, the romance soon tapers off.
The journey of self-discovery on foreign land finds Cole and Rawlins struggling with identity and hardships. The novel is unbelievable and the film tries to capture the essence of the novel but looses much of the violence and struggles found in the novel, especially the love between Cole and Alejandra. Cole and Rawlins also struggle with the Mexican police and the violent death of Blevins, which is lost in the movie because of the choppiness of scenes toward the end. Overall, the quest for identity is a journey of the soul and Cormac McCarthy captures Cole’s journey brilliantly while Thornton tries to capture it in his adaptation of the novel to film, but in many aspects, falls short.