I wish I could say that Lawrence Kasdan’s Wyatt Earp had an epic vision to match its 3-hour-and-10-minute running time. Alas, this strenuously dark biographical Western plays more like a choppy, self-important miniseries. Recasting the story of the legendary frontier lawman, Kasdan and his coscreenwriter, Dan Gordon, have replaced the straight-arrow, good-guy marshal familiar from a dozen Westerns with their own brooding archetype. Wyatt (Kevin Costner), raised by his father (Gene Hackman) to revere the bonds of family, starts out as a courtly, golden-hearted youth — the first time he witnesses bloodshed, he loses his lunch — but then, after marrying his sweetheart, he watches her die from typhoid and undergoes a drastic fall from grace. First he becomes a drunkard and a horse thief. Then he gives up the booze and crooked habits, only to discover that his faith has been burned away. In its place is a hard-shelled existential coldness that renders him a spiritual cousin to Clint Eastwood’s recovering outlaw in Unforgiven.
Made with the kind of ponderous reverence Hollywood generally reserves for the lives of sandal-wearing Indian political saints, Wyatt Earp tries to confront us with something weightier than the pleasures of old-fashioned heroism. Unfortunately, it ends up offering something sketchier: a psychodramatic hero without a center. Wyatt becomes a roving lawman, using his three brothers (Michael Madsen, David Andrews, and Linden Ashby) as deputies and moving them from town to town along with their wives. They’re a grim, quarrelsome clan, bound by a loyalty — Wyatt’s — that borders on obsession. In a sense, Wyatt’s very strength of character as a marshal is the product of his semiblackened heart. His youthful fear replaced by anger, he now has the courage to face down any scoundrel with a gun. But if his actions are noble, his motives are far murkier. He’s a licensed killer who isn’t thinking about the license.
Viewing Wyatt through a mythopoetic filter, the movie never quite allows us to see him as a fleshed-out human being. In the meandering, rather superfluous first hour, the most significant section — Wyatt’s marriage — is given such a perfunctory staging that the death of his wife scarcely seems enough to explain his cataclysmic personality change. And though Costner, to a degree, succeeds in coasting on gruff virility, too often his depressive scowl appears a shade away from boredom. He’s not a subtle enough actor to get by with three hours of moody stares.
Wyatt Earp does feature a small, moving performance by Mare Winningham as Wyatt’s common-law wife, who seems to gain in soulfulness the more callously he treats her. And the film has a major saving grace in Dennis Quaid, who plays the tubercular, emaciated Doc Holliday as a manic goblin, a skull that can’t stop talking. Doc, black eyes burning, practically has his deathbed strapped to his back, but thanks to Quaid’s scrappy showbiz nihilism, he’s more alive than anyone else in the movie. C