Whether you were caught up in its brooding anguish or dismissive of its highfalutin melodrama, 1996's "The English Patient" did its job: It was an epic, romantic tragedy, trailing a subtext about the artificial boundaries imposed by war. "All the Pretty Horses," the adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's award-winning book, would like to be something similar. Too bad the film manages to evoke little emotion, even of the easy, life-is-so-unfair sort.
As with Michael Ondaatje's "The English Patient" book, McCarthy's novel, with its stark, serpentine sentences, employs a stylized language not easily translated to film. "All the Pretty Horses" concerns John Grady Cole and Lacey Rawlins, late-1940s West Texas cowboys who head to Mexico in search of work and wide-open vistas. They're kind-hearted, upstanding and reticent, following that manly code of conduct that states that anyone who chatters is either a fool, a manipulator or a woman. Still, McCarthy's vivid, often lovely writing lets him get away with the dialogue's minimalism.
The film, directed by Billy Bob Thornton, adheres to this bare-bones mode. "You either stick or you quit. That's about all I got to say," Cole (Matt Damon) says to Rawlins (Henry Thomas). When they discuss Cole's return to the ranch that's home to the beautiful Alejandra (Penélope Cruz), the exchange amounts to this: "You're going back down there, ain't ya?" "Yeah, I guess I am."
This might look silly here in print, but a film can successfully use characters who are reluctant with their words, as long as the emotional texture shows through. For this job, Thornton pulls out the deliberately framed details: a lasso arching in slo-mo, a horse's bottomless-looking eye, dusty Mexican hands, an extended sequence when Cole and Rawlins break wild horse after horse.
And it's up to Damon and Thomas to convey the churning emotional life hiding in their pauses and silences. They both, however, do an only adequate job. Involved in nearly every scene, Damon carries the burden, and while his mouth tightens knowingly and his eyes sharpen into meaningful stares, he's just not made for existential brooding. He's best doing charm and wit -- two things not needed much here -- and that Reagan-era smile of his seems out of place next to tin plates of rice and beans.
Still, the movie's only out-and-out stumble comes in the love story. The entire courtship between Alejandra, daughter of the rich ranch owner (Ruben Blades), and Cole consists of a few smiles and some bashful eye contact. Damon has no magnetism, and Cruz has -- well, nothing to do. One scene, when she asks to ride his horse, clumsily works its way up to this fizzled exchange: "You're going to get me in trouble." "You're already in trouble." The affair is shown in a series of fuzzy, wordless montages. How an audience is supposed to care about the pair is baffling.
"All the Pretty Horses," though, has one blazingly bright spot: Lucas Black's portrayal of trouble-maker Jimmy Blevins, a teen-age fugitive. Black (also directed by Thornton in "Sling Blade") seems to have kidnapped all the exuberance in sight -- his presence transforms a laconic movie half-interested in questioning God's existence and turns it into something compelling.
In the most memorable scene, Blevins is dragged away by two Mexicans, and Black's show of desperation is stunning. Thornton directs the sequence masterfully, from the struggle to a closeup of Black that ends on a fleeting freeze-frame, and then a long shot of the three men's ragged trail of footprints through the sand. Its in the playing out of Blevins' mixed impulses that "All the Pretty Horses" lives up to its ponderous tone.