John Grady Cole (Matt Damon) and his best friend Lacey Rawlins (Henry Thomas) leave their Texan ranch and make way towards the Rio Grande. They cross paths with Jimmy (Lucas Black), a teenage misfit who has a mind of his own – a recipe for disaster. Cole and Rawlins start working on a ranch for a wealthy Mexican landowner Rocho (Ruben Blades), and soon Cole falls in love with his beautiful daughter Alejandra (Penelope Cruz). But in an age when a woman's reputation is all she has, the love affair is doomed from the beginning.

4.5
The landscape shots are beautiful; however, the direction of the actors is occasionally jarring.

It's always a bit of a worry when a great book becomes a movie. All the Pretty Horses has had a chequered career in its production with us lovers of Cormac McCarthy's book biting our fingernails on the sidelines. Well, finally, here it is, with Billy Bob Thornton directing and Matt Damon starring.

John Grady Cole (Matt Damon) loses his inheritance after the death of his grandfather, it's a ranch in western Texas that is a little piece of heaven on earth. With nothing to keep him he rides south to Mexico with his friend Lacey (Henry Thomas), to where real cowboys live. On the way they meet up with a young runaway Bevins (Lucas Black) who is a real wildcard with a gun but eventually find work on a huge ranch owned by Rocha (Ruben Blades). In amongst the cowpunching and horse breaking, Cole falls in love with Rocha's beautiful daughter Alejandra (Penelope Cruz). The relationships with Bevins and with Alejandra are the defining elements of their trip south.

The spirit of this spare, great novel has been achieved in Thornton's big screen version. It's not easy translating an existentialist western to film in the American system but it hasn't been turned into escapist fare despite Thornton's original 2 hour 40 minute version having been cut by nearly an hour. I have some qualms about his style of direction, his handling of intimate scenes is occasionally jarring but the setting of these two young life-seekers in a grand landscape is truly beautiful. Matt Damon is fine as John Cole but the nice surprise is Henry Thomas, the little kid from ET, bringing gravitas to the role of Lacey. Another wonderful performance is from Elizabeth Ibarra who plays Alejandra's cautionary aunt. Far from being repelled from the movie of one of my favourite novels of recent years I was actually grateful and moved.

Comments from David Stratton:

I haven't read the Cormac McCarthy book on which this troubled film originally a project for Mike Nichols is based. The first reel is overly hurried as it establishes the characters, and throughout the film there's the impression of a longer version that's been severely pruned. I thought Billy Bob Thronton's first film as director, Sling Blade was overrated; his second, Daddy And Them, seems to have sunk without trace; now comes this relative disappointment, a film with something of the mood of The Hi-Lo Country, but inferior to Stephen Frears' film.