Appaloosa (United States, 2008)
One of the most evident signs of the shift in movie-goers' tastes over the years has been the decline of the Western. Once among the most popular of film genres, it now ranks near the bottom. If there's a benefit to this downturn, it's that modern Westerns rarely go into production unless they possess a complex or challenging quality. In many ways, Ed Harris' Appaloosa is one of the most traditional examples we have seen since the genre underwent a shift during the early 1990s with Oscar wins by Dances with Wolves and Unforgiven. It is not as compelling as three recent Westerns – The Proposition, Open Range, and 3:10 to Yuma - but there's enough quality material to be found bookended between the opening and closing credits to make this compulsory viewing for those who retain a fondness for what the Western can bring to the screen.
Appaloosa is more of a character-based Western than a shoot-'em-up, although that's not to say there aren't gunfights. Instead, the film's action-based set pieces are relegated to short, staccato bursts widely separated by lengthy segments that are heavy on dialogue and dramatic interaction. One of the most important aspect of any Western - the ability of the filmmakers to re-create a world that has been blown away by modernism like a tumbleweed by a high wind - has not proven to be an insurmountable obstacle to Harris. His vision of 1882 New Mexico is rich in period detail and atmosphere. Appaloosa does not feel like a town that has sprung up on a studio backlot (as was the case with many '50s and '60s Westerns). Instead, it's as if the cast and crew have stepped into a time machine to get their shots.
Appaloosa, like many Old West towns, is as light on law and order as it is on population. This makes it ripe for abuse by a rich, powerful outlaw like Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons), whose "boys" are allowed to drink the whiskey, use the whores, and take the livestock without consideration of recompense. Eventually, the town leaders become so fed-up with Bragg that they call in renowned gunman Virgil Cole (Ed Harris) to be their marshal. Cole is accompanied by Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen), his constant companion for many years. Cole drives a hard bargain but the men who run Appaloosa are eager to rid themselves of Bragg and his gang. The standoff begins with three of Bragg's men dead, followed by a cat-and-mouse game between the lawman and the gangster that leads to, but does not culminate in, Bragg being arrested and spirited away from his ranch in the middle of the night. Meanwhile, there's a new woman in town. Allie French (Renée Zellweger), who declares herself to be widowed and not a whore, has her eye on Virgil, but that doesn't stop her from showing interest in Everett. In fact, she seems more attracted to power than men, as becomes apparent whenever she comes in contact with a new top dog.
The motivations of the characters are never straightforward and no one in Appaloosa fits neatly into a clean stereotype. Virgil is a straight-shooter but, despite his ability with a gun, he's not the most intelligent marshal in the Old West and he's not the most confident of men when away from his job. He also has a strict code about not breaking the law and will not circumvent it. Everett has his own set of rules, but they aren't as rigid. Virgil might only view Everett as a companion; Everett considers the older man more than that - perhaps a mentor or even a friend. Allie isn't a traditional damsel in distress. One gets the opinion that, regardless of the situation, she'll land on her feet. With her, there are no double-standards, and Virgil understands what she represents when he promises to be there for her for as long as she needs him.
The film is well cast, with all of the actors being chosen for their ability to fit into the period costumes and settings without seeming out of place. One has no difficulty accepting Harris as the square-jawed marshal. Mortensen is his usual low-key self, providing an individual who is at once both heroic and humble. Zellweger impresses not only because she's feisty but because the actress doesn't mind getting a little dirty (literally). In the dusty town of Appaloosa, she doesn't always look like she's fresh from a bath and a visit to a hairdresser. Jeremy Irons recalls Richard Harris from Unforgiven, albeit without the accent. Ariadna Gil has a nice secondary role as a barmaid who hooks up with Everett; the character is brimming with unrealized potential, but Gil brings her to our attention.
Westerns often take themselves seriously and, while Appaloosa is no Blazing Saddles, there's a refreshing vein of understated humor running throughout the production. It's neither forced nor unnatural and it keeps things from becoming too somber, even when the bullets start flying. There are some pacing problems associated with the structure. One could argue that the movie's climax comes too early and the last half hour requires a little too much retrenching and meandering before the conclusion is reached. I found Appaloosa to be gripping and dramatically satisfying for its first 90 minutes, but I wasn't as pleased with the final act, which feels more tacked-on than organic. Flaws aside, Appaloosa remains a valid reason to be thankful that, while Westerns may no longer be as victorious at the box office as their gunslinger protagonists, they are not dead. As long as there are productions like these, the specter of Boot Hill will remain at bay.
Appaloosa (United States, 2008)
Cast: Ed Harris, Viggo Mortensen, Jeremy Irons, Renée Zellweger, Lance Henriksen, Adam Nelson, Ariadna Gil
Screenplay: Robert Knott & Ed Harris
Cinematography: Dean Semler
Music: Jeff Beal
U.S. Distributor: New Line Cinema
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