All the Pretty Horses comes with a fancy pedigree: a Cormac McCarthy novel about adolescent Texas cowboys, circa 1949, that deservedly won the National Book Award eight years ago. Director Billy Bob Thornton (Sling Blade) and screenwriter Ted Tally (The Silence of the Lambs) approach the material with respect, but only Barry Markowitz's luminous camerawork does justice to the descriptive majesty of McCarthy's prose. Although the actors work hard, the haunted soul of the book resists capture onscreen. At thirty, Matt Damon seems a bit mature to play John Grady Cole, the teenager who rides off to Mexico with his pal Lacey Rawlins (Henry Thomas) in search of adventure. After meeting outlaw kid Jimmy Blevins (Lucas Black, in the film's liveliest and best performance), John and Lacey find work breaking horses on a hacienda run by Rocha (Ruben Blades), a wealthy man whose daughter, Alejandra (Penelope Cruz), is tempestuous — aren't they all? — and doomed to fall for John. It doesn't help that Damon and Cruz fail to generate sparks or that the second half of the film, in which John and Lacey face hell in a Mexican prison, feels bluntly edited to fit a two-hour running time. Thornton and Tally clearly ache to give the film a mythic resonance, but their movie sounds hollow where the book rang true.
From The Archives Issue 278: November 16, 1978