In his 1992 National Book Award-winning novel, Cormac McCarthy opens with the mythic image of two young men lighting out for new territory. Whereas Huck Finn took his raft down the Mississippi in search of adventure, these two are riding horses in 1950 across the Rio Grande into Mexico. This coming of age drama has been adapted for the screen by director Billy Bob Thornton and writer Ted Tally.
John Grady Cole (Matt Damon) desperately wants to run the Texas ranch where he grew up. But his beloved grandfather has died leaving the place to John's mother who wants to sell it. And John's divorced father can do nothing to help. So with Lacey Rawlins (Henry Thomas), his best friend, John sets out for Mexico where they hope to land work on ranches like those in the Old West.
Along the way, they meet up with Jimmy Blevins (Lucas Black), a troubled kid who is escaping from the violent beatings he's received from his father. In a storm, he reveals his great fear of lightning, which killed other members of his family. Lacey is convinced that the kid spells nothing but trouble, especially when he loses his horse, clothes, and gun in the storm. Blevens goes on his own after retrieving his horse in a Mexican town but the reverberations of his violent actions eventually catch up with the two Texans.
John and Lacey land jobs as cowboys on a wealthy Mexican ranch run by Rocha (Reuben Blades), a man who breeds horses. John wins his respect when he breaks a herd of mustangs. However, when he falls in love with Rocha's lovely and rebellious daughter Alejandra (Penelope Cruz), he puts his job in jeopardy. Dona Alfonsa (Miriam Colon), the girl's strong-willed aunt, tells John that his love affair has destroyed her honor and that if he respects her, he will step aside. Speaking to the American youth, she says: "In the end, Mr. Cole, we all come to be cured of our sentiments. Those whom life does not cure, death will."
In a long sequence of events set in motion by the vengeful Rocha and Dona Alfonsa, John and Lacey land in a terrible Mexican prison where their friendship is tested along with their survival skills. As in many westerns of yesteryear, violence and random violence are close companions of the cowboy protagonists.
In a film that begins with John and Lacey talking about heaven and hell under the big night sky and ends with the compassionate act of a judge (Bruce Dern), All the Pretty Horses misses the mark as a classic drama about coming of age. Although the photography by Barry Markowitz is alluring and the music by Marty Stuart is a fine counterpoint to the story, what we see on the screen is curiously devoid of soul. It's as if Thornton, Tally, and company have treated McCarthy's acclaimed book with so much reverence that they've missed its heart.