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Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Appaloosa (2008)

 
  
Director: Ed Harris - Cast: Ed Harris, Viggo Mortenson, Renée Zellweger, Jeremy Irons, Timothy Spall, Lance Henrikson, Robert Jaregui, Adam Nelson, Ariadna Gil


In the opening scene a town marshal and his two deputies are killed in cold blood by a rancher when they're about to arrest two of his men. The year is 1882, the territory New Mexico, the premise a classic conflict between a rancher and townspeople who no longer want to be at the mercy of the despot. They therefore hire two professional 'peacemakers', Virgil Cole and his partner Everett Hitch, to restore law and order in the town and its surroundings. Both men are energetic and also rather ruthless, but run up against a new kind of corruption: their major opponent, Randall Bragg (the rancher who killed the Marshal and his deputies), is granted full pardon by one of his relatives, no other than the president of the United States.

Appaloosa was based on a 2005 novel by Robert B. Parker, best known for his crime novels about the private detective Spencer. It stars Ed Harris (who also directs) and Viggo Mortenson as the two hired lawmen and Renée Zellweger as Allie, a young widow who traveled West to find a new life. Watching Harris' movie (his second as a director, following the biopic Pollock) it seems obvious that he wanted to pay tribute to the classic Hollywood style of film making, rather than making a revisionist western. So in the final moments gunman Everett Hitch literally rides off into the sunset. At the same time Harris has a shot at realism with his action scenes, which are rather short but marked by a cold, clinical brutality.


 Appaloosa is not demythologizing the period and the people it describes, but it isn’t glorifying them either: the three main characters all have their shady sides: Virgil (played by director Ed Harris) is a short-tempered, self-righteous man who easily becomes violent when things won’t go his way; he’ll eventually stay with Allie, because “he has never seen a woman like her”, even though he knows she’ll sleep with anybody in his absence. Everett is the more intellectual of the two partners, but he’s also more uncompromising: unlike Virgil, he cannot live with the idea of a corrupt man like Randall Bragg being granted a full pardon. Before riding off into the sunset, he kills Bragg in a duel. This duel at the end of Appaloosa is all but heroic: Everett Hitch knows he’s a far better shot than his opponent and shooting Bragg comes close to cold-blooded murder. Ironically, it’s this  travesty of justice, of everything the two men ever stood for, that gives Virgil and Allie the chance to lead a peaceful life in the town of Appaloosa. 


This is a fine example of the genre, made by a director, scored by a composer (Jeff Beal), and played by actors who all love the genre. I wasn't too sure about Zellweger though; she's not a bad actress, but her mannerisms don't really fit into the genre. Most critics have compared the movie to Edward Dmytryk's town western Warlock (1959), which also features a pair of peacemakers, but there are also strong (notably visual) references to John Ford's My Darling Clementine (1948). It's a pleasure to watch but some viewers may find it too deliberately paced; Harris and Mortensen spent a lot of time discussing their personal feelings, and admittedly the script is rather thin, the love story practically the only diversion from the main conflict. Those shots at realism occasionally feel a bit uneasy in combination with the classic style of film making: both set and costume design are breathtaking, but the movie looks a bit too clean, too stylized to be really convincing (in this aspect there are similarities to the 1993 movie Tombstone which had the same fashionable look). The West was a lot dirtier than the image we get here.