Despite the fact that the protagonist of the novel is only 16, the casting is excellent. Matt Damon plays the lead character of John Grady Cole and, although he is convincing, it is not the role of a lifetime. Henry Thomas shines in the supporting role of John's friend, Rawlins, who accompanies him on the epic journey. Along the way, they are joined by Blevins, a young boy played by Lucas Black (Sling Blade) with perhaps a secret or two. The weakest link is actress Penelope Cruz, who plays Cole's love interest, Alejandra; there is no chemistry whatsoever between her and Damon. The film also includes brief cameos by Sam Shepard, Robert Patrick, and Bruce Dern.
Director Billy Bob Thornton has said All the Pretty Horses is the best work he'll ever do but, although his directing is adequate, it is hardly spectacular. The narrative becomes choppy at times, and fails to define Cole's motivation. Following the book closely, the film offers many unforeseen plot twists.
Among the most exciting developments is a harrowing prison sequence, which captures both the fear and confusion of someone wrongly incarcerated. Further, a scene depicting Cole's attempt to tame a stallion is also notable, but is somewhat hampered by the obvious use of a stunt double.
The cinematography throughout the film is breathtaking, and it's refreshing to know that there are parts of this world still unblemished by modern progress. This gives the story the look and feel of an old western.
Set in 1949, just after the close of World War II and the advent of rock and roll, it is a world that Cole turns his back on. Perhaps searching for a bygone era, he looks upon the vast wilds of Mexico as a land of freedom and independence. Once can empathize with a lost soul who doesn't know where he belongs, but running away is clearly no solution. It's a shame Thornton didn't know into which genre to place his film, as it runs aimlessly from one event to another, like all the pretty horses with nowhere to go. Rating: 7 out of 10.