Appaloosa A Quiet, Character Western
by Kristin Battestella
Co-writer, director, and producer Ed Harris (Pollock) also stars in the 2008 western Appaloosa. Based on the Robert B. Parker (Spencer for Hire) novel, this quiet character piece invokes a nostalgic, sophisticated atmosphere with period detail and fine performances.
It's the New Mexico Territory, 1882 and the town of Appaloosa calls in peacekeeper Virgil Cole (Harris) and his deputy Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen) to bring in murderous, power hungry rancher Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons). Cole's reputation for the law proceeds him, however neither he nor his deputy know how to handle the affections of widow Allie French (Renee Zellweger) – much less interference of hired gun Ring Shelton (Lance Henriksen) amid train raids, corrupt trials, Chiricahua standoffs, and betrayed alliances.
Quick shootouts are the real law here, immediately setting the reckless tense as the narration tells of bitter soldiers post War between the States choosing sides in The West. Viewers must pay attention to the dialogue, for information happens fast amid the sophisticated conversations and legalese agreements. Despite rugged airs as enemies sit down at opposite sides of the table to share a whiskey, there's a civilized code of honor to the violence – chit chat on the law versus the outlaw as two sides of the same coin. Dual layers, rivalries, and subtle jealousy keep this character piece classy rather than embellishing the drama with try hard cool. However, Appaloosa gives our gents enough cowboy fun even if the buddy moments, verbal spars, and chuckles have a certain gravitas. Tender scenes between the fisticuffs don't hit the audience over the head with scandal, and good or bad, everybody wears black hats. The raids at dawn, jailbreak vigils, circuit judge, and sheriff escorts are common to the genre – Appaloosa feels similar to a lot of John Wayne or Richard Widmark pictures – but this isn't a knock off or spoof playing into the western winks. Appaloosa is also not a slow piece, however the film making itself may be pleasingly perceived as quiet. Players converse in reasonable length scenes, polite two-shots let the cast be, and no noticeable editing intrudes on the debate. Where today's movies often over rely on physical action replacing plot progression, here conflict happens with introspective character movement rather than crescendos. Dangerous bridges, abductions, and nail-biting negotiations are done in camera without zooms or bombastic antics. Personal and professional love triangles collide via the symbolic framework of an unfinished house, and horseback pursuits ride on alongside standoffs and treachery as enemies must work together before the final shootout.
Gruff in his beard Viggo Mortensen's (Eastern Promises) Everett Hitch may have quit his West Point commission but he's still never without his eight gauge shotgun. He may follow Virgil Cole, finish the shootout, pull him off in a fight, or back him up whichever hot or cold is required, yet the lawmen seem more like an equal pair rather than marshal in charge and obeying deputy. Townsfolk prefer discussing their predicament with the more amicable Hitch, and he's silently barters with a Chiricahua raiding party. Despite any bust ups on the case, he apologizes for Virgil's sandpaper ways because he gets the job done. Hitch refuses to debate whether he's a better gunslinger since Virgil is the undisputed best, but Cole says it's Hitch's emotions that keep him from the top. What will it take for him to step out of Virgil's shadow?Audiences today aren't used to seeing men talk about their sensitivity onscreen, but lawmen catching feelings can only lead to trouble and the emotion is a dynamic change of pace. Although Hitch chooses to be second fiddle, several critical scenes are from his point of view, and his larger than life shotgun posturing is often the center of the frame – visually, he is the true star of Appaloosa in the unspoken spirit of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Of course, black hat suave Ed Harris as Virgil Cole insists town leaders sign his way into law and warns victims he is a fast draw but will pistol whip a cowboy to get answers. Virgil's a cold killer but doesn't like a lady teasing him about being socially awkward. He's not well spoken and has a poor vocabulary but educates himself. While Cole is not without compassion, apologizes when warranted, and insists on being straight with Hitch; he's unaccustomed to the personal interfering with the professional, refusing to think about anything else until their quarry's caught. Can Cole give up his stubborn marshaling and idly retire in Appaloosa? Though not intended as homosexual, there is a deep, comforting trust between these characters – an inseparable bat man relationship with humor and caring a woman can't understand. Unfortunately, Virgil's blind to any jealously and needs Hitch's aide thanks to the hitherto unknown domestic.
Renee Zellweger (Chicago) as piano playing widow Allie French, however, has the men looking twice as she talks sassy and makes Cole blush. She wants to be with him but dislikes how his work will always be first. Allie doesn't want to be a part of his profession – especially when her life is at risk – and thus turns her flirtations toward the equally besotted Hitch. She's wise to the two men competing even if they don't seem to really know women at all. Hitch insists they are both “with Virgil” and not “with each other,” unaware of the deliberate game she is playing. Allie is not a foolish lady and does what she has to do. A woman in this era must stick with the nearest man to survive, and the higher the man, the better. Such pretty is going to be problematic, and Allie resents how a woman can't be the real boss outside of playing house. Although the character is meant to be wishy washy, the portrayal is too uneven and falls flat amid the stronger leads. Allie comes between the men because the plot says so, not because she is really going toe to toe with them in a shrewd, feminine game of chess. Despite unanswered questions about her, the character is unlikable rather than mysterious and there's no reason to care about her mixed motivations. The name Bragg, however, fits Jeremy Irons' (High Rise) power hungry rancher. He contests the lawmen at every turn, teasing Virgil about reading Emerson while gloating about their at odds social standing and his friends in high places. The one on ones are great when we get them, but Bragg needed a little more to do than bookend the piece with his crimes and swindles. There's no real reason why he goes from rancher to sheriff killer – refusing to surrender his rapist work hands doesn't create villainous dimension. There's more to his and the town story in the deleted scenes and behind the scenes discussions on the Appaloosa blu-ray set, but in a western, the bad guy just has to be the bad guy, so any added class from Irons is a bonus. Likewise, there should have been more to gun for hire Lance Henriksen (Near Dark). He's willing to fight at the Chiricahua raid or hold up a train – but the price influences which side he defends.
Ranch emblems, wooden buildings, and traditional western front architecture establish Appaloosa's Old West atmosphere along with numerous gun belts and cowboy hats. Desert vistas and mountainous scenery make those on horseback tiny on the dusty frontier while contrasting Victorian décor, wallpaper, oil lamps, and tea sets keep the interiors civilized. Carriages, outhouses, and saloon doors complete the expected western style yet Appaloosa remains colorful and bright without the commonly associated fifties pink or mid-century garish design. The muted look and old fashioned patina, however, is not so modern bleak, dark, and grainy that viewers can't see the nighttime action. The gunshots are also not outrageously loud, preferring a more natural pop and the resounding thud when a man drops. It's a surprising natural choice that makes the gun violence more ruthless, for these shootouts aren't rad cool action scenes but a fast draw where the killer doesn't bat an eye. Precious little language, nudity, brief horse injuries, and blood likewise refuse to bow to sensationalism. Instead Appaloosa has an amazing attention to detail with vintage costuming and period trains. Choice music is only used for otherwise quiet scenes and riding transitions, adding to the lawless beauty with guitar strings and Spanish motifs. Appaloosa is impressive for its mere twenty million dollar budget, again questioning why such mid-sized pictures have fallen out of Hollywood favor.
While underwhelming to some who think nothing but too much talking is happening, Appaloosa has an audience in fans of the cast and viewers seeking quality westerns. Granted, the plot could have been more well rounded between the law and the villains. This won't be a gritty two hours as some expect nor have enough lighthearted moments for others. Appaloosa is more about the character relationships and takes several viewings to pick up all the subtle dynamics. The straightforward story of buddy marshals versus bad guys and a woman coming between them provides enough layered nuances. Compared to the recent The Magnificent Seven remake that has all the extra bells and whistles yet felt lacking, Appaloosa has personality, quirks, and man versus man, man versus nature, and man versus himself conflict that better states the unspoken man's man without all the in your face. There are sequels to the source novel – today this would be a television series for sure – but I'd love to see this stock company continue doing more western character pieces. Appaloosa has a charming cast, location, and style with both western motifs of old as well as maturity and a modern sophistication worth a look.