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Western films have come a long way since the gung-ho, good-guys-wear-white salad days of John Wayne, John Ford and Randolph Scott. The passage of time has placed a squintier cast on Wild West movie heroism and turned much the good-guy/bad-guy dynamic on its head, calling into question much of the idealism of the genre. As such, the popularity of the films has waxed and waned with movie audiences and only a precious few cowboy films are produced these days. Still, stories of the early days of U.S. homesteading and the colourful characters that braved the lawlessness of the undiscovered country captivate when placed in the right hands. When those hands belong to actor/writer/director Ed Harris, the result is Appaloosa, a captivating tale of the old West with enough bite and modern edge to draw in both enthusiasts and non-devotees of the cowboy movie.

Based on the novel by Robert B. Parker, Appaloosa starts off with a bang; a brutal and unthinkable killing by today’s mores that tosses the audience right into the dust and sagebrush of a truly lawless time. Well, that last statement is relative. It seems there was law, but apparently it only applied to certain parts of a town and not others perhaps only a few miles away. If one was clever, one could set up a homestead just beyond city limits and very literally become a law unto themselves. One man who enjoys that autocracy is a rancher named Randall Bragg. Bragg and his hired hands run the nearby mining town of Appaloosa like it was their own personal storeroom, absconding with food, supplies, alcohol and the townswomen’s honour without impunity. When called to account for the crimes of his men by the city’s marshal, Bragg makes good use of those city limits rule to the early dispatch of the marshal and his men, throwing the small town into a tizzy. The civic heads call upon a quick shooting lawman for hire, Virgil Cole, and his deputy, Everett Hitch, to deal with Bragg and his thugs. As Cole and Hitch make stringent changes to the quality of life in Appaloosa, Bragg finds himself minus a few henchmen and locked in a test of wills against the plainspoken, by-the-book duo. Appaloosa’s effects also wreak havoc on the lawmen as a bond of many years is shaken by the arrival of wandering widow, Allison French, who settles in town and threatens to come between the two men. Drama, drama, drama.

For this turgid setup, one might never know what a hilarious film Appaloosa is. More than anything, the acerbic, bone dry humour that permeates the film is what separates it from other modern day oaters. Having a lot in common with the lamented HBO Western TV series Deadwood, which also found laughs in some of the darkest places, Appaloosa’s scriptload of backhand quips and droll comments reveals the sense of humour necessary to cope with the amount of senseless and sudden death pervading the times. The film’s tremendous wit also serves to throw the audience off the scent of exactly how savage that era was and the struggle to the death Appaloosa’s main characters are locked in. When those brutal moments come, it is always with a jolt, and the balance between the laughs in the script and the shock of the violence is where Appaloosa exceeds.

Much credit for that brilliant tightrope act goes to Appaloosa’s two leads. The chemistry between Ed Harris as Marshall Cole and Viggo Mortensen as Deputy Hitch is fantastic and the two, who were so great in 2005’s A History of Violence, play off each other as if they, like their characters, had been living out of each other’s pockets for years. Cole and Hitch are two men who know each other so well they can finish each other’s sentences and each man has utter belief and trust in the other. After one particularly abrupt gunfight, a battered Hitch comments, “That happened quick,” to which Cole deadpans, “Everybody could shoot.” The offhand delivery and timing by both men is flawless. 

There’s an awful lot of quirk to Appaloosa, which endows it a loopy kind of surrealness. The looseness with which Harris directs his actors simultaneously allows the best instincts of those involved to shine and others to fail badly. It seems that outside of Harris, Mortensen and maybe Lance Henriksen as an old rival of Cole’s, there wasn’t a lot of time spent with a dialogue coach for the rest of the film’s stars, particular the film’s U.K. crew.  Jeremy Irons is Bragg, the Appaloosa’s resident bad hat and for a long time during the film, I kept picturing Claus von Bulow on the range. The accent of the transplanted New Englander (- accent on the “New”) living the life of Reilly in the Southwest starts off somewhere in the mid-Atlantic then wanders all over various parts of America. Irons carries off his villain with a perfect mixture of flat-eyed sharklike disaffect in the shocking scenes and full-throated rage in other moments. Wherever he comes from, Iron’s Bragg is a hoot of a villain and the actor looks like he’s having a great time trying not to eat the scenery. Timothy Spall is another Brit with an odd accent as a town leader who has second thoughts about bringing in the two quasi-mercenaries to clean up his town. While not as ringing as Irons’, Spall’s accent also travels, but the small role of the bureaucrat constantly seized by vapours is elevated by Spall’s deft handling of some of the broader laughs in the film.

In all this good news there’s bound to be some bad and here it is, Renee Zellweger plays the love interest. In previous years, this information wasn’t a cause for trepidation, but good gravy; I don’t know what’s happened to her. I enjoyed her for so long in so many things, but to keep this from sounding like a rehash of my Leatherheads review, I will simply ask when exactly was it that Renee Zellweger forgot how to act? Egads, she’s the worst thing in this. How did this once-wonderful actor lose all her talent and promise and become an amateurish bundle of affect and telegraphed reactions? Why is it suddenly she needs to act like she’s acting? - And then, doing it so badly! Zellweger isn’t helped by the film’s true-to-the-period makeup and harsh lighting that makes her barely-maquillaged face look like an orange left out in the sun for a week. That’s not something I would have pointed out but for the way Allie preens and carries herself as like the hottest thing her side of the Grand Canyon. The unsureness throughout her performance that made me wonder if Zellweger had any insight to her character’s motivations or delivery, or if the actress had simply shown up and badly mislaid director Harris’ faith in her capabilities. Spanish actress Ariadna Gil plays a hooker who becomes Hitch’s confidant and I would have much preferred to see more of her sensitive portrayal than endure more of Zellweger’s strident poses. Even worse for Zellweger, her character is in the thankless role of serving as an wholly unsympathetic wedge between the two men. Even so, Allie, who has all the constancy of a remora, might have been a complex and interesting character in someone else’s skin, but as portrayed by Zellweger, her scenes only manage to drag the pacing of the entire film down.

There’s also a brutal scene early in the film depicting Cole as perhaps having a few more screws loose than he lets on, which is full of foreshadowing that comes to nothing. It was odd and felt like the editor forgot to either cut it out or tack on the explanation for why he behaves as such, especially in light of the treatment we see Cole endure later on. That odd note I chalked up to an attempt at being nonlinear in the strict Western template.

But for those few discordant moments, Appaloosa is good stuff. Ed Harris co-wrote and directed a smart and funny script that’s highly entertaining from its first draw. Taut, exciting with crackling performances; Appaloosa is a first-rate modern Western.

Well done.

 

~ Mighty Ganesha

Sept. 18th, 2008

 

 

 

 

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Photos

(Courtesy of New Line Cinema)

 

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