17 March 2009

Movie Review: Appaloosa

Appaloosa (2008)
Directed by Ed Harris. Starring Viggo Mortensen, Ed Harris, Jeremy Irons, Renée Zellweger, Lance Henriksen, James Gammon, Timothy Spall, Ariadna Gil

I’m trying to make up for my recent Western-review deficiency in a fury. Following on The Last Sunset, I’m turning my Winchester sites toward this new Western from 2008. It’s the second film from Ed Harris as a director. His first was Pollock in 2000, and that Harris followed that art-house indie biopic with a traditional Western just makes me love the guy.

And I stress traditional. In a crowded film marketplace, Westerns often strive for a sort of “gimmick” or a heavy irony to make them somehow more than a Western. Fine, sometimes that works. But the same way that many horror fans have cheered the turn toward slasher films content to act like slasher films, like My Bloody Valentine 3D and the new Friday the Thirteenth, I cheer Westerns that want to do nothing more than set great stories out in the American frontier, where the movie needs no excuse to exist other than because guns, horses, and incredible landscapes are so damned cool.

That’s what Open Range does, it’s what the 3:10 to Yuma re-make does, and it’s what Appaloosa does. Nothing about this film, based on a novel by mystery writer Robert B. Parker and with a script that Harris co-wrote with Robert Knott, is particularly surprising or innovative. The finale has a nice change of fortune for the characters, but it sits in line with the traditional Western narratives of the past. There isn’t anything remarkable about Appaloosa except that it’s a good story well told. It made me very happy.

The two leads have such an easy chemistry and comfort with the setting that it seems as if they could never have acted in another genre (even though they appeared across from each other in the modern-day in A History of Violence—a great film, too). Harris plays Virgil Cole, a marshall-for-hire wandering the West. Mortensen plays his partner, Everett Hitch, the man who fills in everything that Cole lacks (especially his vocabulary lapses). The two men are an inseparable pair, and the performance between them is pitch-perfect and a joy to listen to. Harris spits out stoic, threatening dialogue to the bad folks, while Mortensen lays back laconically with the shotgun ready when his friend needs it.

Then a woman comes between them . . .

See, I told you this is traditional material. The plot doesn’t matter that much; it’s a good version of the “Marshall Story” that Frank Gruber described in his classic list of Western plots. It carries us along without winking at us. Cole and Hitch hire on to protect the town of Appaloosa from the evil rancher Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons), who opens the film with the cold-blooded murder of the town marshall and his deputies when they arrive on Bragg’s ranch to arrest two of his men. Cole and Hitch go through a series of showdowns with Bragg and Co., and eventually have to escort him as a prisoner through numerous dangers. The fly in the ointment is Cole’s new gal, the ambiguous Allie French (Renée Zellweger), who threatens to rip apart more than just the friendship.

The film moves with an easy and realistic grace, interrupted with gunfire and great squinty-eyed face-offs between great actors. I’ve never thought much of Zellweger as an actress, but she has a look that fits the Western setting better than most glamorous beauties of the screen might. She manages to play Allie’s conflicting nature at the right tone so that the confusion that sets in for Cole makes sense. Irons, who has so often grabbed the money and run in other genre movies (his part in Dungeons & Dragons may be the Worst Performance by a Great Actor I’ve ever seen) is a lovable nasty here. I really, really wanted to plug him myself with an eight gauge. (And is the name Randall Bragg a reference to Stephen King’s character Randall Flagg? I wonder . . .) Lance Henriksen also pops in for some secondary bad-guy business, and like most of the cast, he makes the sagebrush landscape of Santa Fe his home.

I would like to give a shout-out to the sound design team, who came up with a very realistic approach to the gunfire in this movie. The shotguns, rifles, and pistols which occasionally puncture the air and the character’s arms, legs, and chests, don’t have the standard movie “thunder and boom” to them—they sound like genuine nineteenth-century guns.

So, to sum up: one of the 2008’s best films . . . and Ed, when are you going to make me another Western?