October, 2008, Drama

Directed by:Ed Harris

Starring:Ed Harris, Viggo Mortensen, Renée Zellweger, Jeremy Irons, and Lance Henriksen

Prolific crime novelist Robert Parker has written over 50 murder mysteries, most of them featuring a Boston-based private detective named Spenser. All of Parker’s books emphasize character over plot and in each the author manages enough crisply-etched macho dialogue to deserve careful attention in any creative writing class. His characters are often violent, frequently charming and rarely dull. The author is especially drawn to themes involving male bonding and the relationships between unmarried (or previously married) couples who mange to remain deeply attracted to each other while pursuing unconventional relationships. At age 76, he shows no signs of slowing down or growing stale.

Two years ago, Parker turned his skills toward the Old West and crafted the work from which this film was adapted by actor/director Ed Harris, who also co-wrote the script. Like Parker’s contemporary set pieces, this one features laconic heroes, an appealing if ultimately incomprehensible woman and enough bloodshed to satisfy audiences who long for a return of the old- fashioned sagebrush saga. Harris and co-star Viggo Mortensen manage to breathe a good bit of life back into a nearly forgotten genre thanks to their individual charisma, a pitch-perfect villain and an often witty script. 

Harris and Mortensen play Virgil Cole his partner Everett Hitch, lawmen-for-hire who ply their trade in whatever frontier town requires their particularly dangerous and lethal skills. Invited to defend Appaloosa, New Mexico by that town’s frantic leadership, the two “town-tamers” demand blank-check authority in dealing with Randall Bragg, (Jeremy Irons) a rapacious, murdering cattleman with reputed ties to Eastern politicians who uses his connections to terrorize Appaloosa’s citizenry. The requisite bloody confrontations occur, facilitating the restoration of law and order - - until lust raises her appealing head in the person of Allison French, (Renee Zellweger). Allison’s a destitute beauty of obvious charm and dubious morals who arrives, (how else?) on the noon stage, quickly capturing Cole’s eye. Courtship and consummation quickly occur, followed by the purchase of a home under construction at the edge of town. Violent law enforcement appears to surrender to burgeoning domesticity, even though the lady’s eye wanders a good bit, especially in Hitch’s direction.

But when Bragg’s role in the murder of the town’s previous sheriff and his deputies surfaces, (thanks to a repentant eye witness) duty beckons; Bragg’s captured and a trial ensues, with unforeseen consequence for all four principals involved.  

Harris, an immensely talented actor who first gained prominence playing John Glenn 25 years ago in The Right Stuff, provides Virgil Cole with just the right amount of hard-nosed authoritarianism to justify his role as putative leader of this law enforcement duo, but it’s Mortensen’s quietly observant side-kick who steals the audience and provides a career-saving denouement for his love-sick partner. With eyes that seems to take in more than what’s there to be seen and a sly, courteous manner with friend and enemy alike, Mortensen continues to deliver performances which capture hidden depths in the characters he portrays. From the fiercely macho drill instructor of the otherwise lamentable G.I. Jane to the tender lover of A Walk On The Moon to the barely suppressed rage of his short-order cook in A History of Violence to last year’s turn as an undercover cop in Eastern Promises, this 50 year old actor provides one amazing performance after another. (His ability to convey dignity in the midst of pain and suffering makes him the perfect choice to play the lead in next year’s adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s apocalyptic novel The Road). There are few actors working in movies today that are capable of matching his appealing intensity.

Irons turns in another lovely performance, making the perfect villain to challenge these legal hired guns; arrogant when in control and obsequiousness when he’s not, his Bragg is a combination of cold-blooded brutality when he has the upper hand and smarmy civility when the circumstances require it. By the movie’s denouement, no comeuppance in recent memory has been so eagerly anticipated or richly deserved. Despite this competition, Zellweger manages to hold her own; coy, duplicitous and unfaithful her Allison may well be, but there’s a kernel of candid self-knowledge amid her sense of forlorn vulnerability which the actress captures with deft understatement.

Cinematographer Dean Semler bathes his scenes in soft tones suggesting that the desert’s abundant dusty grit can drain any distinct color of its brilliance while costume designer David Robinson employs wardrobes of such complete period detail they provide a thoroughly-nuanced sense of time and place. 

Given all the talent in evidence, Appaloosa remains a strange choice for Harris’ second outing behind the camera; eight years ago he personally bankrolled Pollack, his first directorial effort which won an Oscar for Marcia Gay Harden as Lee Krasner, the artist’s muse. The gravity of that movie’s subject matter is curiously at odds with this one; it’s not hard to see how the story of the self-destructive behavior of one of abstract expressionism’s true geniuses appealed to Harris, but how to explain his apparent fascination with a storyline involving a pair of fictional gunslingers at work in the waning days of America’s lawless Southwest whose storyline includes a climatic shootout which threatens to turn the entire movie into a shaggy dog story just before the obligatory ride-off into the sunset? Even so, those who carry a torch for the leathery western epics of John Ford and Howard Hawks will be richly rewarded by this return to a category of movies Hollywood derisively refers to as “oaters”.

The verdict? Not a great example of the classic western, but a handsomely captured example of a genre too long out of style - - and certainly more fun than Clint Eastwood’s over-praised Unforgiven or the lumpy re-make of 3:10 to Yuma. If you admired either of those, you’ll be over the moon about Appaloosa.    

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