Friday, September 05, 2008


(USA, 2008)
Directed by Ed Harris
Written by Ed Harris and Robert Knott
Cast: Ed Harris, Viggo Mortenson, Rene Zellweger, Jeremy Irons, Lance Henriksen, Timothy Spall

The most anachronistic thing about Ed Harris' Appaloosa is how straight-forward it is--post-Unforgiven and Deadwood, whatever audience endures for the Western (or, at least, me...) has become so used to "deconstructionism" that when faced with an old-fashioned "oater" that's as unpretentious and straight-shooting as a tattered Zane Gray paperback you might unearth at a yard sale, one can't help but go looking for the allegory behind every swing of a saloon door or glint of gun metal. Is the jailhouse supposed to represent Abu Ghraib? And those cattle rustlers--they're Blackwater, right? Plus, there's less spoken profanity in its entire 114 minute running time than in a single Al Swearengen soliloquy--this thing could almost play in the Gunsmoke time slot on Peachtree TV.

After the impassioned--and at times, histrionic--biopic Pollock, which Harris nurtured obsessively for several years for his directorial debut, this sophomore effort displays a surprisingly warm touch from such an intense and devoted actor, who ambitions here were simply to create a type of film he enjoyed in his youth. Not a terribly radical notion, admittedly--with Open Range and the remake of 3:10 To Yuma having also attempted to resurrect the horse opera in recent years to varied success, but Harris' take is easy, breezy stuff, chock full of genre conventions--yes, that's "Camptown Races" playing on the saloon piano! and the Indians belt out war whoops--that are only dutifully addressed in favour of oddball character bits.

Based on a novel by Spenser creator Robert B. Parker, the story is set in the titular town in New Mexico, circa 1882. When Appaloosa's Marshall and deputies are murdered in cold blood under the orders of rancher Randall Bragg (Irons, taking cues on masking his accent from Daniel Day Lewis), the town elders waste no time in hiring nomadic lawman Virgil Cole (Harris) and his long-time friend and deputy Everett Hitch (Mortenson) to do something about the Bragg's campaign of terror. They reluctantly agree to Cole's rather extreme set of laws, active immediately. Within the day, the seasoned gunmen have already unholstered their weapons and sent Bragg a message that he won't be tolerated nor his reputation feared. A guilt-ridden young man, who witnessed Bragg's execution of the lawmen, offers to serve as a witness if Cole and Hitch will ensure his protection--an arrangement that leads to the rotter's immediate arrest.

When Allison French (Zellweger) arrives in town in search of work as a church organist ("you're not a whore?", Cole asks matter-of-factly, when considering the notion of an attractive young woman traveling alone), both men begin a boyish rivalry for her attentions. Cole, who’d previously been with only "horses and squaws", wins Allison's hand--and more--and soon, they're moving in together and building a house, to the chagrin of Hitch, who regards Cole as his permanent life partner.

When Allison makes an aggressive pass at Hitch, he rebuffs her out of loyalty to his friend, and learns of her true colours when she threatens to blackmail him. Meanwhile, an uncharacteristically beaming, lovestruck Cole is suspicious when some familiar faces from his past suddenly arrive in town for Bragg's trial, especially the oily Ring (Henriksen). Bragg is convicted and sentenced to hang, but Cole's old friends have other plans. In cahoots with Ring, Bragg's gang bust their boss out of custody during a thrilling train siege, and kidnap Allison to keep Cole and Hitch at bay. In pursuit, Hitch is faced with dilemma: should he tell his best friend of his lady's dubious loyalties? Would Cole's emotions jeopardize the hunt for Bragg?

Mortenson and Harris were obviously born to wear Stetsons and strap on six-guns, but the film's standout moments crackle when their masculinity falters and they become tongue-tied over picking out fabric for curtains, discussing previous romantic dalliances, or when Hitch plays Cyrano to Virgil's limited vocabulary (even though he's been seen thumbing through a tome by Ralph Waldo Emerson). While they've worked together on only one film previously (David Cronenberg's A History Of Violence), their effortless rapport suggests they could well have been lifelong friends off-camera as well.

Unfortunately, Zellweger (replacing original choice Diane Lane), is badly miscast, mincing about daintily in Allison's hoop skirt and parisol about as believably as Jodie Foster vamped in Miss Kitty's wardrobe in Richard Donner's Maverick update. Ally's affections are conditional, and seemingly airborne to whatever alpha cowpoke is in the immediate vicinity--is this the advent of the "modern" woman to further rock Virgil's old timey world views (although Emerson did support the 19th women's rights movement), or, are we meant to see Zellweger’s use of her feminine charms as her survival tool against all this rampant testosterone? Whatever the intention, Zellweger never pulls it off--she comes off as manipulative and vaguely pathological, rather than resourceful.

Harris has admitted to studying the Western classics of Hawks and Ford--My Darling Clementine, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and Red River specifically--seeking to "keep it simple visually, and [with as] as few cuts as possible" (from the press notes). He also sought inspiration from the iconic Wild West paintings of Frederick Remington. Dean Semler's photography is pretty and functional but not particularly distinguished, perhaps in service to Harris' no-bullstuff approach to the material. The film lacks Ford's painterly vistas or Peckinpah's gritty, sunbaked textures, although Sergio Leone would have surely fallen for the four great craggy faces in play (Harris, Mortenson, Irons, and of course, Henriksen), and likely Zellweger's shiny, squinty countenance as well.

Not only did Harris purchase the rights to the novel, hand deliver a copy to Mortenson at The Toronto International Film Festival, cowrite the screenplay (with Robert Knott), direct the adaptation, and take on the lead role, he even sings one of the two end title songs (the other is by Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers)! Thankfully, his commitment is evident in every frame, even if the experience is, in the end, a little underwhelming, considering the magnitude of the talent involved.

©Robert J. Lewis