Reel Society

Reviews for the latest movies in theaters and on DVD.

Appaloosa

 

Review by Patrick Hodges

At the beginning of Appaloosa, a marshal and two of his deputies ride up to the property of a rancher named Bragg (Jeremy Irons), in order to arrest two of his men for a couple of vicious murders.  Calm as you please, Bragg dispatches all three men.  Not long after that, the senior businessmen of the nearby town of Appaloosa hire Virgil Cole (Ed Harris, who also directed) and his partner Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen) to deal with Bragg, who runs the town with an iron fist.  Almost immediately thereafter, the pair make their presence felt to some of Bragg’s thugs.  In spades.

So, does Appaloosa fit the model of a “typical” Hollywood Western?  Let’s see:  clearly defined good guys?  Check.  Clearly defined bad guys?  Check.  Well-shot, wide-open landscapes?  Check.  A winsome damsel to win the hero’s heart?  Check.  Trouble with local Indians?  Check.  A fair amount of gunplay?  Check.

But I’m going to burst your bubble now:  Appaloosa is most emphatically NOT a typical Western.  It goes in directions you may not expect, and it does so with a great deal of introspection and self-reflection.  Harris plays the steely-eyed, distant Cole very well; he is a veteran of the “gun-work” business (as he calls it), and he goes about his business with a cool hand and very little emotion.  Hitch, on the other hand, is a bit of an enigma:  he continually ponders his place in the world, and has some very deep-rooted feelings about the people around him (a character trait that, as Cole points out, can often get one killed).

As I said, there is a fair amount of gunplay, but they are not the staple of the film, and they are all fairly brief… which does fit, given that gun battles don’t tend to last very long when everyone involved actually knows how to shoot.  As you can imagine, the pacing of this film is very slow and deliberate, except when the character of Allison French (Renee Zellweger) is involved.  Right after Cole and Hitch set up shop, the perky widow comes into town and procures employment as a piano player at the local hotel/saloon.  Almost immediately, she makes a play for Cole, who seems to be equally smitten.  But in almost no time at all, they are building a house together like they’d been together for years.  There are other examples where things seem to happen at a lightning pace with her around, but I won’t go into them.

The caliber of talent present from the three main actors is, of course, impressive, and they all deliver. Harris is very good as Cole, the fearless lawman who occasionally lets his softer side show, and Irons plays the villainous Bragg with ruthless precision.  But it is Hitch, by far the most three-dimensional character in the film, who is the most fun to watch.  Mortensen does a simply brilliant job of conveying his feelings with his facial expressions and his surprising intelligence.  But Zellweger’s character, honestly, felt like window dressing for me.  Though she possesses a far more tarnished halo than we are led to believe at the beginning, I found her performance to be rather flat.

Even in today’s fast-paced society, Westerns can still be quite entertaining:  they can be good popcorn fun, like 3:10 to Yuma, or they can be deeply philosophical and glamourless, like Unforgiven was.  Appaloosa is far more like the latter, but in my opinion, not quite enough to make it recommendable.

2 ½ / 5 stars

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