Take a typical western’s plot. By which I mean, take Appaloosa’s plot: A wrong is committed. The wrong must be avenged. The wrong is difficult to avenge, so the job will require a flinty, principled man who puts nothing above The Avenging. The man is, it hardly needs saying, outnumbered. Badly. And even with The Avenging at the top of his to-do list, said man will have to make some awfully tough decisions along the way. Some of these decisions will place the lives of innocent people in the balance. This man might have a short temper, but he is essentially Decent and Good. Don’t expect him to talk about his feelings, because, as the poster for Appaloosa makes clear: “Feelings get you killed.”
This might make the film under review sound like a generic western, but that’s only because it is. You just have to ask yourself, is a generic western preferable to a generic romp through the afterlife starring Greg Kinnear, or a generic “romantic” “comedy” starring Dane Cook, or a generic middle-age melodrama starring Richard Gere, Diane Lane, and a pack of wild horses on a beach?
Perhaps I’m leading the jury.
Based on a novel by Robert B. Parker, Appaloosa is set in the titular town in the 1880’s. Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons) is an outlaw who lives outside of Appaloosa the way a vulture lives above a crippled horse, visiting from time to time with his henchmen to stir up trouble both severe (murder) and harmless-but-icky (gleefully urinating on the floor of a bar). When a marshal and two of his men go to Bragg’s ranch to make an arrest, the only thing they get for their trouble is killed.
Enter The Avenger(s). The town leaders call on two freelance lawmen to restore order, and if the dirt roads and swinging-door saloons and subtitle reading “New Mexico Territory, 1882” hadn’t clued us in yet, we know we’re in a western because the men are named Virgil Cole (Ed Harris) and Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen). The two intimidating sharpshooters fend off trouble with Bragg and his crew, and do silent battle for the affections of Allie French (Renée Zellweger), a newcomer to Appaloosa and, from all appearances, one of only two even remotely attractive women in town, the other of whom is a prostitute. The plot focuses on Virgil’s dual goals of bringing Bragg to justice and making a faithful partner of Allie. (Everett concedes the silent battle to his buddy almost immediately.) Neither is an easy task, and both strands of the story have just enough twists to keep things interesting.
The three main principals in Appaloosa fit the genre well. Harris’ face is as angular and weathered as any mesa, and from his steely blue eyes could very well emanate Lasers of Justice. Mortensen has a soulful, world-weary gaze, and he looks remarkably comfortable in antiquated facial hair. Zellweger is perfectly suited for westerns, because even at rest her squinty face gives the appearance of someone withstanding a fierce dust storm.
The story is told, subtly, from Everett’s perspective, and Mortensen gives the most touching, convincing performance as the right-hand man who smothers his own desires in order to please the boss. You get the sense that he isn’t holding himself back from Allie just because Virgil could shoot a kernel of corn off his head from a hundred yards. His loyalty to Virgil is real, and of course, per western mythos, the relationship between the two men is far deeper and central to the story than anything Allie can offer.
Westerns are so numerous by now, and the way of life they depict so increasingly outdated even in the hinterlands, that filmmakers have to be careful. Follow the formula too closely and they risk boredom. Make a wrong move or two and the whole thing might look like the lobby of a new theme hotel in Vegas. Harris, settling into the director’s chair for the first time since Pollock, gets the essentials right — the stirring confrontations, the freighted decisions, the stunning sunset vistas. His missteps come when he tries to freshen things with humor. Virgil’s habit of relying on Everett to complete his sentences with multisyllabic words that escape him is not terribly funny the first time, and terribly unfunny the third. Likewise, the pacing of the scene when a shy Virgil and Everett first meet Allie seems meant to accommodate laughs, a flaw in planning.
Appaloosa is far from a must-see — aside from those vistas, the whole thing would look just as good on cable — but it’s a could-see, and as we adults get our legs back under us after the Big Wheel marathon that is the American summer movie season, that feels like plenty.
John Williams lives in Brooklyn. He’s a freelance writer. He blogs at A Special Way of Being Afraid.Yeah. It's a Western. But Does Viggo Get Naked?
Film | September 23, 2008 | Comments ()