“Everything eats meat likes a dead buffalo”
It kind of flew under the radar, but Ed Harris’ film Appaloosa is a pretty solid western. As only his second foray behind the camera, after the good art biography Pollock, Harris has upped the stakes a bit in terms of scope and execution. Sure an old time western set around New Mexico territory isn’t all that posh and expensive, but it is impressive nonetheless. Between the costumes and the authenticity needed to make it real, something that HBO showed was possible with their dead before its time “Deadwood”, the film gets all the grit and moral toughness you would expect in a world where a man’s word is his bond and the ability to look death in the face a necessity. Credit the actor also for pulling out an inspired performance equal parts restraint and repressed anger, a lawman with the need to educate himself and better his vocabulary, a person that never lies because the truth is just easier. Harris’ Virgil Cole is the kind of sheriff you want in your town, one who’d never compromise his values nor let a murderer run free and unchecked despite a Presidential pardon.
I find, with a very light western film knowledge, that the best of the genre are those unafraid to stay stoic and deliberate, allowing the events to transpire in their own time, never rushing to a scene of violence or action, but letting them occur naturally. For the most part, Appaloosa does just that. When you have characters like Harris and Viggo Mortensen’s Everett Hitch, two men with a common understanding and shorthand of communication consisting of head movements and body language, you know the film itself will probably be just as buttoned up and precise. Feelings may get you killed in a society only on the cusp of order, but these two men know when compassion and emotion are necessary to remain human, despite the consequences that may follow. In effect, both are hired to kill a band of outlaws under control of Randall Bragg, the always-riveting Jeremy Irons. By signing the town over to Harris, the citizens pretty much give him carte blanche on what he’s allowed to do to keep order. The job always comes first, but certain circumstances have a way of finding a spot in the plot, shaking things up a bit and leading them astray just enough to add a bit of suspense.
Throw in a beautiful newcomer played by Renée Zellweger to stir into the pot and you know trouble will be brewing. The unknowing femme fatale, she is the kind of woman who needs to feel secure and safe, shacking up with the man in charge to make sure she stays that way. Unfortunately, that also means that once the current “love” falls just a bit out of favor, below someone else, she won’t hesitate to make her move strong and early. But these boys are cowboys—with nerves of steel and blood cold as ice—they can see the reality of situations and not let emotions fool their minds. The real object at hand is doing the job, serving the town, and hanging a convicted murderer. There will of course be bumps along the way, but that goal will never stray from being at the forefront. Cole and Hitch have been doing this sort of work for too long to not realize what truly matters.
I’ll admit to not being a fan of Zellweger early on; her character was just annoying and seemingly inconsequential. However, as the tale continued on, her role becomes more crucial and her actions understandable in the context of whom she is. Once the façade of waif-like naïveté wears off, as the truth comes out of what kind of person she is, you begin to see the vulnerability and fearlessness at her core. Still probably the weakest link in the film, I did eventually learn to appreciate the role. Many supporting parts come into their own throughout, including a nice tough guy turn from Timothy V. Murphy and a couple more from Lance Henriksen and Adam Nelson, but the real winners are the trio at the top. Irons is a brilliant combination of intellect and conniving malice, as only the best villains can be composed. His utter brutality and fervor to save his own skin come alive with screams and aggression, but his eloquence and knowledge of the world make you wonder about what lies behind the hard exterior. And both Harris and Mortensen shine as the partners in control, staring their own mortality in the face, knowing they can and will beat it every time. Their dynamic is perfect, especially the need of Viggo to finish his boss’s need to pull a big word out of his head. I especially enjoyed Mortensen’s appearance, swagger, and soft spot for the world. Willing to do whatever necessary, to do his boss and friend’s every bidding without pause, yet still be soft-spoken, knowledgeable, and compassionate about all who are close to him make up that complicated man you need in a bleak wild west atmosphere.
By no means is Appaloosa a masterpiece, but it does its job well. The construction left a little to be desired by me as I almost thought the film would end very early and barely make the 90 minute mark. After introductions and the subsequent capture and trial we all were waiting for happened, there doesn’t seem to be much else to see. However, there is more as characters come back and cross each other’s paths yet again to lead towards a very good ending that I enjoyed immensely for its mix of slight closure and open-ending curiosity. My one qualm is with the half hour or so between these two successes, a period of time utilized to bridge the end of act one to the climatic final showdown. The time plods along and begins to unravel into nonsense and repetition. Thankfully it all does occur for a reason, and for that I can accept it for what it was and remember the enjoyment I had despite it.
Appaloosa 7/10 | ★ ★ ★
Courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival.