Ed Harris is one of the best in terms of acting. His directorial skills, while not so visible, Appaloosa is only his second time in the chair, are also top notch as he proved in this 2008 slow but interesting western. Starring in, co-writing the script (based on the Robert B. Parker novel of the same name) and producing as well as directing shows just how much the star wanted this film made. Choosing Dean Semler (Dances With Wolves, Maleficent) as his DP shows how much he wanted his vision to look spot on.
In fact, the only real shame, or problem, with Harris’ film was the necessity of having to recast Allie. Diane Lane was the original choice and Zellweger was a last minute replacement. Certainly the Bridget Jones star was acceptable in the role, but, with Lane in the part, one imagines sheer perfection. (I will admit a certain prejudice here, I do like Renee Zellweger but, I adore Diane Lane.)
Taking almost a literal view of westerns, the two main protagonists resemble Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday and not having read the Parker book which the film is based on, it is not known where this idea comes from. Regardless of where it originates, the allusion works. It should be pointed out that appearances are where these resemblances end. Both Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch are very different from the real-life western icons they favor.
Virgil is a taciturn man who can only really focus on one task at a time. While trying to better himself, reading the works of Emerson and checking with West Point graduate Everett (played wonderfully by Viggo Mortensen) when the vocabulary proves too taxing, he kills when his potential prisoners resist arrest. Hitch, his educated former Army officer partner of 12 years, is also quick to shoot and backs Cole’s plays whatever they entail.
This tale deals with, on its surface, the story of a long partnership of “mobile lawmen.” The pair come to the town of Appaloosa to help the founding fathers take care of a local rancher who has been riding roughshod over the citizens and businesses of the growing city. Randall Bragg (played with snooty superiority by Brit actor Jeremy Irons) finally stumbles when he personally murders the city marshal and two deputies in cold blood in front of a bevy of witnesses.
While only one young man steps forward to testify, it is enough to guarantee a noose for Bragg’s neck and he is to be transported to a local prison where they will help him meet his maker. Things do not go as planned and the remainder of the film is about personal issues between the three men and the woman who tries to play with all of them.
Allie French is a woman who confesses to Virgil that, “I’m afraid of everything.” At his urging she reveals a list of things that terrify her. Near the top of the list is her fear that she attached to the wrong man. This leads to her tendency to sleep with any Alpha Male she comes across. As she is in a relationship with Cole, this is troublesome, although it seems that the marshal is pretty accepting of her tendency to sleep with “anything that isn’t gelded.”
The film is a great treat for western fans as it does look fantastic. The sets, the lighting, the props, the guns are authentic and used properly, and the costumes all appear pretty much spot on. What is interesting is the way that Cole has opted to film the gunfights.
Appaloosa choses Clint Eastwood’s The Outlaw Josey Wales method of gunplay. There are no Spaghetti Western quick-draws where the protagonist whips out his six gun and fans the hammer back to quickly shoot down multiple adversaries before they clear leather. At the beginning of the film, just after being officially hired by the town leaders, Cole and Hitch take on four of Bragg’s men in a saloon.
When two of the toughs, who are urinating in the bar’s spittoons, brace the new marshal and reach for their guns, Virgil almost leisurely pulls his pistol, cocks and shoots each one with deadly results. Hitch takes care of one cowboy behind Cole with his 8-gauge shotgun and the fourth declines to become involved in this mini bloodbath.
Later in the film, two more gunfights erupt and in each, the participants enter the fray with guns already drawn. Revolvers held down at their sides, the men face one another and “make their move” when they believe that the advantage is theirs. The gunfights are fast, “That happened quick,” says a prone Hitch. “Everybody could shoot,” replies Cole who is laying flat on his back with a “busted knee.”
As the traveling marshal points out early in the film, and later Hitch does the same, gunmen who become lawmen do so because “they can.” In other words they have the ability to shoot straight and fast with no thought of their own safety. As illustrated in the film’s penultimate shootout, not all gunmen are created equal, even those considered excellent can be killed.
In the film’s romance Zellweger’s piano playing Mrs. French and Harris’ single-minded marshal make an odd couple. Their relationship is interesting as it is awkward. Just as awkward is Allie’s tinkling of the ivories. At all times more perfunctory than musical and full of mishit keys and notes, the playing matches the woman’s personality. Something about Allie just does not fit and pointing out her mangled playing of the piano highlights this perfectly.
Appaloosa proves yet again that Ed Harris sits well in the director’s chair, his previous film was Pollock (2000). The film is a good 3.5 out of 5 stars; mainly because of Zellweger and the slow pace of the film itself as well as the offbeat soundtrack. Harking back to Howard Hawks’ El Dorado and its ultra modern music, Appaloosa uses a similar musical theme and it does not fit. This could be a personal bugbear of this viewer but it needs to be put out there. Available on Amazon and iTunes to stream and on disc, fans of the genre need to check this one out if they have not already done so.