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Thursday, January 29, 2009
  DVD Review: Appaloosa

I’m not a huge westerns guy, but as with any genre, it’s got its share of great movies (Tombstone is a personal fave, and Sergio These three actors in a western? YES PLEASELeone’s spaghetti westerns are excellent), but it’s not a genre that I typically get excited about one way or another. And at this point, westerns tend to fall into two categories: post­-Unforgiven “revisionist” westerns that aim to show how violent and amoral that mythical era actually was, and movies that use the tropes of the genre for more traditional action-adventure stories, like the recent remake of 3:10 to Yuma (which I didn't much care for). Appaloosa doesn’t really fall into either category; it has very little in the way of “action,” but it’s also got an old-fashioned flavour to it, and co-writer/producer/director/star Ed Harris doesn’t seem interested in using his film to make a statement about the treatment of Native Americans or the brutality of the real American West, choosing instead to focus on character.

Appaloosa, which is based on a novel by Robert B. Parker, co-stars Viggo Mortensen, Renée Zellweger and Jeremy Irons, and it’s this stellar cast (I actually don’t care for Zellweger at all, and I had many issues with her character as well, but more on that later) that helps to elevate Harris’ film to an above-average entry into the genre. Harris plays marshal Virgil Cole, who travels around from lawless town to lawless town bringing justice, aided by his loyal, shotgun-toting deputy, Everett Hitch (Mortensen, rocking some of the most impressive facial hair I’ve seen in a western since the mustache festival that was Tombstone). Cole is hired by the residents of the fictional town of Appaloosa to help them deal with local rancher Randall Bragg (Irons) whose workers are running roughshod over the nearby town. The film opens with Bragg coldly murdering a marshal and two of his men (two of his men brutally killed a married couple, and the lawmen showed up at his ranch to collect them) which proves to be the last straw for the people of Appaloosa, who hire Cole to deal with Bragg permanently. Cole takes the job, and he, Hitch and Hitch’s facial hair set about bringing peace to the town.

One of the best things in Appaloosa is the characters and how they interact. Harris and Mortensen, paired as rivals inMortensen in a quintessential western shot A History of Violence, have a wonderfully easy chemistry, and they really do seem like they’ve been riding together for more than a decade. They have a great dynamic, and their banter (Harris estimates about 85% of the dialogue was just taken verbatim from Parker’s book) is sharp and often hilarious. Harris plays Cole as an almost robotic killer – he’s less a proper lawman than he is a hired gun who earns his money killing criminals and thugs – while Mortensen’s Hitch is the duo’s conscience, more intelligent and well-read, and less prone to jumping into a situation without thinking. Throw in a brilliant actor like Jeremy Irons as the villain, and you’ve got yourself a solid western based on that alone. Just getting to watch three capital-G great actors do their thing is a treat.

Which brings me to Renée Zellweger’s character. As I said earlier, I’ve just never liked her as an actress, but I like to believe I’m capable of looking past my own personal feelings when I’m in Reviewer Mode. (I find Jack Black irritating as hell, but that didn’t stop me from loving both Tropic Thunder and Kung Fu Panda, and he does great work in both). My issues with Zellweger in Appaloosa have to do with her character. I can’t go into too much detail about what happens with her as the movie progresses for fear of spoiling plot points, but, like many westerns, Appaloosa is very much a Guy’s Movie, and I was a little troubled by the vaguely sexist tone the movie takes on when it comes to her character (though I can only assume that’s taken from the book). Basically as soon as she arrives in Appaloosa, Cole falls in love with her at first sight, and their romance throws his dynamic with Hitch all out of whack – the story of Appaloosa has as much to do with their friendship being tested by an icky girl than it does about their attempt to bring Bragg to justice. As a result, Zellweger’s character just comes across shrill and annoying – she nags Cole about why he has to spend all day guarding his prisoner (i.e. doing his job) in his holding cell instead of spending time with her, for example.

I also found that music really struck the wrong tone. Which sounds like a strangely minor thing to gripe about, but the only reason I mention it is because AppaloPardnersosa is one of the rare times I even noticed the score, and that’s because it felt so wrong in so many parts. Ed Harris is a very capable director, and much of Appaloosa is beautiful to look at, and there are more than a few excellently-constructed sequences. A few scenes come close to being genuinely great, but the music holds it back, ruining the atmosphere, particularly in the buildup to the gunfights (a crucial aspect of any western). There’s also a couple of bits of voiceover from Mortensen’s character at the beginning and end of the film that are problematic. The voiceover that opens the film is helpful, as it explains Cole’s relationship with Hitch, but his narration in the final scene really just heavy-handedly explains things that were already pretty clear from the characters' actions, and it ruins the subtlety of an otherwise well-done sequence. The ending would have been far more effective if it had been allowed to play out without Mortensen's voiceover.

Ultimately, though, I found that the good in Appaloosa outweighed the bad. The gunfights, though few and far between, are very well done, though they typically only last a few seconds, often finishing before you realize what’s happening. (“That happened quick,” Hitch says after one shootout in which several men go down in the span of about two seconds. “Everybody could shoot,” is Cole’s terse reply.) And for the first two thirds or so I thought Appaloosa was really quite standard in its story – gunfighter cleans up lawless town, but finds his heart softening when he falls in love – but as the final third began, the plot started taking turns I didn’t expect, for better or worse (usually for better). Overall, if you’re a fan of westerns, there’s a lot to like here, but if you’re looking for lots of gunplay and action, look elsewhere. Appaloosa is an above-average western with some issues that prevent it from being truly great.



The Appaloosa DVD has quite a few extras on it, and they’re pretty much all solid. Ed Harris provides commentary, and he’s soft-spoken to the point of potentially inducing sleep. But he was heavily involved in just about every aspect of production, so he manages to provide lots of insight. He’s joined partway through the film by producing partner and co-writer Robert Knott, and as much as the two have the easy dialogue of old friends, Knott’s arrival doesn’t really add much. The track is thoughtful, if a little dry.

Also included are a handful of making-of featurettes on the characters and actors, the historical accuracy, the town itself (which was laid out and planned with a surprising level of detail) and veteran cinematographer Dean Semler, who returned to the western genre – and traditional film stock – after spending several years shooting on digital. It’s a solid, if unspectacular package for a solid, if unspectacular film.

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