A film review by Craig J. Koban

APPALOOSA jj

2008, R, 115 mins.

Virgil: Ed Harris / Everett: Viggo Mortensen / Allison: Renee Zellweger / Randall: Jeremy Irons / Phil: Timothy Spall / Ring: Lance Henriksen

Directed by Ed Harris /Written by Robert Knott and Harris / Based on the novel by Robert B. Parker.

New Line Cinema's Appaloosa

Ed Harris has a mug that was simply born to be in a western:  He has that withered and textured face, piercing eyes, stoic, penetrating, and grizzled stare, and a potent and fierce magnetism.  And he can be as intense as hell.  Man...can he ever.

As an actor, he has emerged as one of our most dependable and versatile.  As a director, he more than proved himself with his rookie effort, 2000’s multiple Oscar nominated POLLOCK, which focused on the life and times of the emotionally tortured abstract expressionist painter.  Harris showed in that film that he could tackle complex themes and challenging characters with flair and integrity.  Regrettably, it’s those last two mentioned characteristics that his new western, APPALOOSA, wholeheartedly lacks.

This film is one in a very disturbingly short list of recent screen westerns, but considering Harris’ obvious talents and pedigree on board, APPALOOSA pales in comparison.  It lacks the sumptuous and beautiful panoramic vistas and overall sheen of Kevin Costner’s OPEN RANGE from 2003 and the hallucinogenic details and stunning verisimilitude of 2006’s THE PROPOSITION (arguably the finest western since 1992’s UNFORGIVEN).  The very last western to be released, James Mangold’s remake of 3:10 TO YUMA, was weak on character motivation and definition, but at least the film brought flash and kinetic flare to its action sequences. 

Harris’ APPALOOSA – based on the 2005 novel of the same name by crime writer Robert B. Parker and not related in any way to Marlon Brando’s THE APPALOOSA – is the most decidedly low key in approach when directly scrutinized alongside the three previously mentioned films.  Under certain circumstances, this approach could be a wise one.  Lamentably, though, Harris’ presence and performance in the film is fairly undermined by his flat, flavorless, and listless direction, not to mention by its slumberingly slow and prosaic screenplay (co-authored by Harris) and a genuine lack of visual interest in the film.   Visual interest should be the last thing that is wrong with any good western, and it is a trait that they surely need to excel at to be successful.  The genre is and has always been one of the most daringly evocative, but if one can’t even drum up humble visual panache to the proceedings, then what’s the point?  Harris certainly fits into his main character in APPALOOSA like a glove, but he seems a bit lost in filming this western; oddly enough, he’s a bit out of his element here.  

On basic levels, the film strives to be stridently character driven first and focuses on violence, bloodshed, and gun-slinging second.  Harris’ vision of a late 1800’s New Mexico has some little details right, but his ultimate m.o. is to construct this western like a classic example of the genre while incorporating modernistic elements of a crime thriller.   In some ways, Harris only gets part of this right, as APPALOOSA never really pushes the envelope to even discretely transcend the genre, like so many other of the great westerns have done.  If anything, HARRIS goes largely for traditional and safer choices, which makes APPALOOSA feel more trivial and routine as an experience.

The film’s title refers to one of those obligatory Old West towns that Harris shoots like just about every standard; run-of-the-mill Old West town we’ve seen countless times before.  It’s 1882 and Appaloosa is, you guessed it, having its law and order scale tipped in the favor of lawlessness.  This makes it simpler for slimy and powerful criminals to stake a claim in the town and write their own rules.  One mighty outlaw is Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons, sneeringly evil at every turn here) whose gang of men engages in all forms of debauchery in the town at every given moment.  In the beginning of the film Bragg kills three lawmen that wish to take him in, and his matter-of-fact manner of shooting these men firmly establishes him as a cold and merciless villain.

Well, town officials from Appaloosa have seen enough and are fed up.  They decide that the only way to bring law and order back to their tiny New Mexican town is by hiring a new marshal and deputy (or…off the record…hired killers to stop Bragg once and for all).  The new marshall comes in the form of a renowned gunman named Virgil Cole (Ed Harris, rock steady), who has an indiscernible level of calm and focus when dealing with all forms of scum aiming their pistols at him at point blank range.  Along for the ride is his anointed deputy, Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen), a fairly soft spoken and well read lawman that is calm and collected on the outside, but inside lurks a cagey and cunning killer of crooks with a shotgun.  Part of the interest of APPALOOSA is seeing the easy-going chemistry between the two characters, not to mention how they compliment one another.  Cole is the boss, to be sure, but he’s not as swift and literate as his deputy, and Hitch understands this and is wise to back Cole up both in conversational circles and in battle.

Needless to say, things do not begin rosy for Cole and Hitch, especially when they kill (but not without ample warning) three of Bragg’s degenerates at a local saloon.  This is a crucial moment for the pair, seeing as it sends a swift message to all that they will not put up with anyone’s b.s. for long.  Bragg does initially meet with Cole and tries to enlighten the lawman that he should be given free reign to do as he pleases in the town, which predictably does not impress Cole.  This brings them into a number of direct confrontations with Bragg himself and – through a series of events – actually leads to the duo successfully arresting the outlaw and seeing him off to trial.  The trial, alas, does not go smoothly.

All of this gets further complicated by the arrival of a woman in town (all macho fisticuffs and confrontations in westerns are often hindered by a female presence) in the form of Allie French (Renee Zellweger) who is quick to point out that she is not a whore, but simply a recent widow.  She is not without looks, or talent for that matter, as she is gifted playing the piano and organ.  Through her initial queries about lodgings in the town she hooks up with Cole, and the marshal soon finds himself falling for the sassy lass.  As Cole and French grown closer, this puts strains not only on his efforts to bring Bragg to justice, but it also has disconcerting effects on his friendship with Hitch itself.

To be fair, there is much to admire in APPALOOSA.  Firstly, and most notably, there is a trio of good performances by Harris, Mortensen, and Irons respectively.  Harris himself is so fine at bringing a razor sharp conviction and nicely introverted strength and tenacity to his role and Mortensen is also very effective as his fellow lawman that often acts as Cole’s moral compass.  Jeremy Irons also shines playing sniveling and contemptuously evil cretins with minimal effort, and his work as Bragg is no exception.  If anything, Harris shows that he is an actor’s-director in the film.

However, this is where the accolades stop, because Harris seems to get lost in the underlining bulk of the film.  The screenplay for APPALOOSA lacks decent forward momentum (it takes forever to get the gears of the plot moving) and interest in its characters; at nearly two hours, the film undesirably feels more like three.  The ending of the film also seems like a rushed hatchet job, like scenes were excised out on the cutting room floor.  There are many individual moments that start promising, then quickly cut hastily to the next scene, spoiling any amount of build up they were trying to create.  The film’s largely episodic feel gets tiresome and – by the time the film cuts to its end credits – you never gain any semblance that a memorable or substantial story has been told. 

There are also other glaring problems with this enterprise.  First, Zellweger seems all wrong for this part and film, as she plays Allie French too bubbly and cute to take the later tonal shift of the character in the film seriously.  Also, her three-way troublesome relationship between herself, Cole, and eventually Hitch has the predictability of a daytime soap opera, and is handled and dealt with in an equally limited fashion.  Watching the film I kept seeing an actress with a bit more bite and nerve, one that could play both adorability with wounded vulnerability and a disquieting sensitivity (like..say…a Zoey Deschanel).

Secondly – and lastly – there is Ed Harris the director in APPALOOSA, who never seems comfortable behind the camera fleshing out any memorable and lasting imagery in the film.  Furthermore, there is an indisputable lack of tension to the story, seeing as one can clearly see its machinations rather early on.  Perhaps even more evident is the notion that Harris does not really push the envelop with the genre in ways that I hoped he could, and his vision of the Old West lacks both a deconstructive vibe nor a level of even soft peddled demystification of the genre.  APPALOOSA, because of this, feels too plain and familiar.  Fans of traditional, old school westerns will most likely enjoy some of it, but for more disconcerting and shrewd viewers that demand more out of his genre (myself included), there seems no denying that Harris kind of falls out of the saddle with this film.

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