Director : Ed Harris
Screenplay : Robert Knott & Ed Harris (based on the novel by Robert Parker)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2008
Stars : Ed Harris (Virgil Cole), Viggo Mortensen (Everett Hitch), Renée Zellweger (Allison French), Jeremy Irons (Randall Bragg), Timothy Spall (Phil Olson), Lance Henriksen (Ring Shelton)
Appaloosa takes place in the dusty mountains of New Mexico in 1882, where the titular town, which is little more than a single street with a few wooden and adobe buildings striving to create a sense of refined civility in the wilderness, has sprung up. The town council, which is comprised of overweight men in suits that are ill-fit for the blistering southwestern heat, brings in two hired guns, Virgil Cole (Ed Harris) and his “deputy,” Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen), because the town’s teetering sense of law and order is threatened by the perfectly named Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons), a rancher and general bully who guns down the marshal in the film’s opening sequence. Desperate for someone to protect them, the town council essentially hands Appaloosa over to Virgil, who imposes martial law and enforces it with the kind of cool, collected sense of purpose and absolute self-confidence that we have come to expect from western heroes.
But, given the constantly shifting tenets of the western genre and the fact that its mythological underpinnings were long ago dismantled by revisionist films, Virgil is hardly a typical western hero nor is Appaloosa a typical western. Based on the 2005 novel by Robert B. Parker, the film is more trenchant character study than thrilling showdown, and it confounds as many generic expectations as it fulfills. It is a slow-burn experience, one that takes its time establishing a sense of place and locating its characters along the moral spectrum, only to question the very sense of moral certainty that has long been one of the genre’s chief hallmarks. Make no mistake--there are heroes and villains. It’s just that the criteria by which we define those comfortable categories are much less stable than we might like.
Thus, Virgil, despite his strict sense of law and order and unquestionable bravery, harbors a psychotic streak that explodes from time to time, reminding us that violence is violence, whether it’s “legitimate” or not. On the other hand, he proves to have a gentle heart that has capacity for great forgiveness, which explains why he continues to pursue Allison French (Renée Zellweger), a refined widow from the East who quickly dispenses with any notion that she is the requisite exemplar of female sanctity in the wilderness. Rather, she is a cunning and ruthless opportunist who realizes that her best chance for survival is in her being with the strongest man in town.
We may wonder why Virgil continues to love her even when she betrays him, but in this sense he is like a child fumbling through new emotions. Harris has played characters both hardened and tender throughout his career, and in Virgil he intertwines the two into a fascinating paradox. Virgil’s relationship with Everett is the only thing that is genuinely steadfast and pure in the film, and its certainty is underscored by the men’s ability to communicate almost entirely in looks and nods. They know each other so well and have known each other for so long that words are almost superfluous, although that doesn’t stop Virgil from constantly trying to learn new vocabulary, a trait that gives his otherwise unflappable character a recognizable softness (one of the film’s real strengths is the way it naturalistically integrates comic relief so that you never really recognize it as such, even though you’re smiling).
Some will likely find Appaloosa too slow and ponderous, and in a sense it is (it feels much longer than its running time, which I was surprised is less than two hours). Yet, Harris, sitting in the director’s chair for the first time since 2000’s Pollock, has a clear vision for the material, and he refuses to sacrifice its subtle underpinnings for easy thrills or simple reductionism. Through his lens we see the Old West in typical movie terms as the stark terrain in which moral warfare is waged for the future of the land, yet we also see it as a place that draws all kinds of conflicted souls whose lives don’t play out on the straight and narrow, however much we may want them to.
Copyright ©2008 James Kendrick
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