Film Reviews

Appaloosa Ed Harris

Rating - 5/10

Over the past decade, the Western has engaged in a small, but rewarding revival with films such as John Hillcoat’s The Proposition (2005), James Mangold’s remake of 3:10 To Yuma (2007) and Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford (2007). Influenced by the Westerns of the Sixties and Seventies, the aforementioned projects have reflected an interest in either the genre's previous depictions of the mythology or iconography of the Old West, or the ensuing scenes of violent bloodshed and disorder enveloping in lawless territories. 

Ed Harris’ Appaloosa is therefore somewhat striking in contrast. Harris’ visual reference points are Ford and Hawks, rather than Leone or Peckinpah. The cinematic language employed harks back to the sparse directness of the 40’s and 50’s, rather than the visual pyrotechnics of the late 60’s and early 70’s. Rooted in the classical framework of the traditional Western, Appaloosa bears little, if any, of the inflections normally associated with the genre’s revisionist strands. Nor, does Harris’ film pay heed to the mythology and sociology of the West. Instead Appaloosa is a leisurely paced throwback exploring the bonds of friendship and loyalty in an Old West setting.

Based on a novel by Robert B. Parker and unrelated to Sidney J. Furie’s 1966 Western The Appaloosa, the film stars Harris alongside Viggo Mortensen as Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch: a pair of lawmen for hire who have arrived in the unruly desert hamlet of Appaloosa to restore order and provide protection from a ruthless rancher named Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons). Bequeathed with extraordinary powers to curb civil liberties, the duo begins to intimidate and wrangle with Bragg and his thuggish posse.
Their campaign continues to proceed successfully, until a matronly widow named Allie French (Renee Zellweger) stumbles into town. With only a dollar in her pocket, Allie quickly threatens to rupture Virgil and Everett’s steadfast friendship. Both men have an eye for her; Virgil in particular. Soon, Virgil and Allie begin to contemplate building a house together, whilst Bragg and his gang remain at large.
Appaloosa is a film of unfinished ideas and loose narrative structures. There is no central abiding plot within Harris’ film, but rather a series of unrealized outlets. Possible subplots arise, but are either abandoned or left to waver. Clearly Harris is more interested in the idyllic kinship shared by Virgil and Everett. Entire scenes are devoted to their mumblings and confessions. Together the pair seems to be bound by an almost matrimonial association more so than a fraternal affinity. 
The film’s first half offers some exciting potential sub-texts and diversions, but none are really explicated, followed through or sought out in a contemplative manner. One of the most absorbing possibilities involves the film's analysis of the justice system and its methodology. Unhinged by Bragg, the town’s political elite grant Virgil and Everett the ability to establish new ordinances and by-laws, assault unruly citizens and arrest suspicious characters bearing firearms. Virgil even goes so far to conduct raids out of his jurisdiction; kidnapping hostile enemies to expedite the judicial process.
Yet, this contemporaneous element of the film is never investigated to its full potential. Nor, does Harris attend to the slight possibility of past links between Zelleweger’s enigmatic character and Bragg’s followers, the film’s momentary nods toward political corruption or even the confrontational reactions elicited by a cuckolded figure of authority. Even the existence of a possible love triangle disintegrates by the hour mark.
In Appaloosa, Harris monitors the relationships of his characters, but does not investigate the psychology of their limited responses. But as demonstrated in his first and far more cohesive film Pollock (2000), Harris is a director more concerned with perceiving than pursuing his character’s intentions and observing rather than rationalizing his character’s actions. In tandem with the film’s disposition, the performances are subtle and restrained. The love triangle evident in Appaloosa resists the sweep of melodrama for stoic reflection. The film’s direction shuns evocative imagery pregnant with symbolism or tension. Accordingly, the overall style is languid, conventional and unhurried.
Harris revels in it, at the expense of much of the film’s drive and its incomplete investigation into interpersonal dynamics. In many ways, Appaloosa is a rare Western dedicated to decorum and manners, as an alternative to violence. The attempt at refining and cultivating oneself in an uncivilized society is one of Harris’ key thematic impulses in Appaloosa. Thus, the film is littered with scenes featuring the forceful Virgil fussing over curtain patterns and struggling to refine his vocabulary with the assistance of the more verbally eloquent and sensitively intelligent Everett.
Problematically, the ephemeral moments of tension between the platonic odd couple are unbalanced and meager. The poetical and idealistic nature of their relationship lacks genuine moments of friction, particularly when Zellweger’s character enters the frame. Despite this Harris and cinematographer Dean Semler create, especially in the film’s first hour, a wonderful set of triangulated compositions evoking the palpable love triangle existing amongst the three characters.
Sadly, the film’s second half slightly abandons this path, as the film foolishly falls back upon the genre’s conventions and customs: hold-ups on bumpy trains; chases through the arid, craggy landscape; skirmishes outside saloons; duels in abandoned, tumbleweed strewn towns. Aligned with the disorganized complexion of the film’s narrative, these latter factors abet in the film’s inefficacious and meandering conclusions.
Appaloosa’s strengths subsequently lie in the depth and range of its two lead protagonists. Harris is stolid, while Mortensen acquits himself nicely with richness and astuteness. Irons with his mangled accent is hardly intimidating, while Zelleweger appears often distracted and confused with the nature of her role. She neither wholly embodies the seductive nor the perfidious qualities of her scheming femme. By the film’s closing scenes, one wonders what either man saw in her, especially since the town’s attentive prostitute (Adriana Gil) is far more intriguing on both an emotional and social level.
One also questions by the film’s denouement what drew Harris to such a project in the first place. Given the array of narrative twists and threads available to Harris, there is the existence of an effective story in the material. Yet, despite the possibilities at his disposal, Harris who also co-wrote and co-produced the film appears to have been unable to pinpoint a fitting vehicle for his inquiries into camaraderie. Ergo, Appaloosa is a messy film buttressed by equally equivocal performances and presumptions about its content. Sadly with Appaloosa, the welcomed revivification of the Western has suffered its first major misfire.