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'Broken Trail' tells tough, tender tale of cowboy era

``Broken Trail" is like its star, Robert Duvall. It moves at an amble, a quiet stoicism masking deep feeling. The two-part western balances between sensitivity and ruggedness, with the sensitivity winning out despite bloody revenge, human trafficking, and conflagration. Just the grand cinematography, by Lloyd Ahern , tips the weight toward poignancy and soulful ness, with cloudscapes and horse choreography that make your eyes dance.

The film, AMC's first original movie production, premieres tomorrow night at 8. It's about the 1897 horse-herding journey of two estranged men, Duvall's Print Ritter and his nephew Tom Harte, played by Thomas Haden Church, who is a very long way from ``Sideways." Despite their laconic natures, their relationship is busy with subtext -- with unspoken family resentments and old calloused wounds. Neither one verbalizes much about their shared history, or the recent death of Tom's mother, which has brought them back together after many years.

But with a few evasive comments, and the subtle direction of Walter Hill , Print's sorrow and Tom's rage emerge clearly through their cowboy exteriors.

And then you can see their trust grow and their distance close, as the world throws accidents, tragedies, and a cast of stray wanderers into their path. Print even has paternal moments toward his nephew during their travels through the West, at one point saying to Tom, ``Sometimes you gotta just roll with what's thrown at you." Duvall gives such simple lines an unexpected resonance and poetry, with his downcast eyes and near-mumble. He refuses to gratuitously amp up the sentiment; he keeps Print's tenderness on the down low.

Print and Tom are bringing 500 horses -- a gorgeous herd of multi-colored creatures -- from Oregon to Wyoming, where they plan to sell them at a markup. Along the way, they pick up a fiddle player and they rescue five Chinese girls who've been sold by their families to become mining-town prostitutes. The frightened girls don't speak English, but they gradually learn to trust Print and Tom. In one of Duvall's sweetest scenes, Print names them One, Two, Three, Four, and Five, giggling to himself because they're so charming in their confusion. When a villain comes to steal them back, the girls become fully clear about who's on their side, and the traveling group becomes like a family unit.

The world of this movie is very far away from HBO's ``Deadwood," although Hill did direct the ``Deadwood" pilot. ``Broken Trail" buys into the more traditional western mythos, with guys sitting around campfires eating cowboy chuck at sunset and saving ladies from the heathens. There is, of course, a hooker with a heart of gold (Greta Scacchi), who joins the travelers and falls for Print. We've seen all these characters countless times before in movie and TV westerns, but the actors give them distinction here. The scenes between Duvall and Scacchi, the familiar attraction between a weary cowboy and an aging prostitute, are among the movie's finest. The two actors play the game of last-chance love like experts.

As AMC's first original movie, ``Broken Trail" bodes well for what may be to come from the channel. But there are a few significant flaws this time around, most notably the length of the two-parter, which concludes Monday at 8. There's no narrative imperative for this story, co-executive produced by Duvall, to be four hours long. It could easily have told the same tale in half the time, without selling out its gentle atmosphere. One or two characters are introduced -- the fiddler, for instance -- whose presence never seems essential. And Church's delivery becomes increasingly tiresome, a stubborn monotone that doesn't prove to have the same depth and range as Heath Ledger's in ``Brokeback Mountain."

But ``Broken Trail" is a class act, as it honors the conventions of the old western without succumbing to predictability. It's a big tale of a cowboy era coming to a close, but it revels in smaller moments and wide open spaces. Thankfully, Hill realizes he doesn't need to artificially heighten the drama and flaunt violence when he has at his disposal the dignity written all over Duvall's face.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at

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