The suits and skirts who run Hollywood hate nothing so much as not being in control, which is why—no matter what they say publicly—they hate Harry Knowles. For several years, the Austin-based online gossip has given studio heads fits by practicing the art of the sneak-peek leak: Relying on information provided by a network of moles who attend hush-hush focus group screenings around the country, he reviews movies on his Web site,, weeks or even months before they hit the theaters. When he proffers one of his massive thumbs up, Left Coasters sigh with relief. But when the verdict is thumbs-down, they see red—and, often, no green.

They may be unhappy to learn that ol’ Harry isn’t the only one with spies in his employ. Last fall, Columbia Pictures decided to test-market one of Y2K’s most hotly anticipated releases, the film version of Cormac McCarthy‘s acclaimed Texas novel All the Pretty Horses, which was directed by Billy Bob Thornton, stars Matt Damon and Henry Thomas, and won’t open until this fall. In November a rough cut of the movie—some three hours and fifteen minutes long—was screened in Austin for an audience of folks chosen at random while walking into one of the city’s movie theaters. One of those kind souls, a McCarthy acolyte and movie buff, felt duty-bound to report what he saw.

On the plot: “There were two ways that Billy Bob could have gone: black and white, with a voice-over droning about the spirituality of horses and grainy slo-mo shots of horsehair and big eyes—like the early scenes in The Elephant Man—or a big western full of color and toothy cowboys. He went with the latter, which is good. McCarthy’s big weakness is his ponderousness. His big strength is his storytelling ability; his books are wide and cinematic. So while the movie follows the book pretty closely, it loses the horse mysticism and the laconic cowboy stuff but keeps the basic story: American teens coming of age through violence and love in Mexico. The book starts strong and goes soft in the second half, when the romance gets going. The movie starts slow and picks up when the boys go to Mexico, where John Grady Cole, played by Damon, falls for the daughter of a Mexican land baron.”

On the casting: “Damon is great as the heroic, romantic, virtuous Cole. His hair is dyed dark; his accent is kind of soft and sexy, in a modern cowboy kind of way. Thomas is even better, maybe, as the fallible Lacey—not heroic like Cole, not virtuous, not the wandering hero. He’s the sidekick who doesn’t get to fall in love, kill an assassin, or wander lost in the great American wilderness. Lucas Black, who plays the tagalong troublemaker Jimmy Blevins (he also played the kid in Sling Blade), is really good: loud, rubber-mouthed, doomed. The only casting mistake is Penelope Cruz, the woman who plays Alejandra, the Mexican girl Cole falls in love with. It’s like the Sofia Coppola problem in Godfather III: She’s beautiful, but it’s the wrong kind of beauty. Cruz doesn’t look Mexican—she looks like someone in a Spanish fashion magazine. Then again, her father is played by Ruben Blades, who doesn’t look like a Mexican land baron, either.”

On the music: “While I was sitting there I thought about Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, another western with spare modern music: piano, bass, drums, guitar. In All the Pretty Horses it’s pleasant enough—it was done by the great Daniel Lanois—but it’s both in and out of sync with the post- World War II action on-screen. It’s all instrumental until Emmylou Harris‘ vocals come in more than halfway through, to signal a violent prison fight scene. You just know something’s going to happen. Hairs went up on my neck.”

On the length: “There are some beautiful scenes that I hope make it through the editing process: a dancing man; a death dream in the prison. I hope Billy Bob doesn’t cut more than thirty minutes or so. I think it will hold up as a nearly-three-hour movie.”

And what would a focus group screening be without a celebrity sighting? Alas, no Damon, but our spy did brush up against one genuine star. “In the middle of the movie, I got up to go to the bathroom. A short hairy guy with nice boots was washing his hands, and it turned out to be Billy Bob, who these days looks like Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top. I wanted to engage him in conversation, but when I looked up he had vanished like the prairie wind.”