By: Wes Lawson
Starring: Ed Harris, Viggo Mortensen, Jeremy Irons, Renee Zellweger
Directed by Ed Harris
Run time: 114 minutes
4 out of 5 stars
The Western is seeing a minor resurgence in Hollywood. In the last three years, there have been three of them that saw theatrical releases- two of which were meditative, slow moving tone poems (“The Assassination of Jesse James,” “The Proposition”) and one that was a throwback to the simple Westerns of olden times (“3:10 to Yuma”).
“Appaloosa,” the latest film to fit into the Western genre, goes for the throwback aspect, and it succeeds admirably. It is not a groundbreaking or amazing film, but it tells a good story with solid acting and solid filmmaking, and it’s quite a pleasure to watch to boot.
As the film begins, we see Randall Bragg (Irons) shoot the sheriff and two of his deputies as they trespass on his ranch just outside the town of Appaloosa. We then shift to Virgil Cole (Harris) and Everett Hitch (Mortensen), two traveling law men whose job is to come to small towns and clean them out of their criminals. They descend upon Appaloosa with the intention of convicting and killing Bragg, but they find it more difficult than they initially expected. Further complicating things is the arrival of Allie French (Zellweger), an organist and well dressed woman who instantly wins Cole’s heart.
The plot has further developments, shootouts, and love scenes, but that’s not really what the film is about. It is essentially a character study of Cole and Hitch, and shows how they react to the various characters in their life and their particular brand of justice. The two men are obviously very good friends, but they rarely speak openly about feelings and thoughts, especially when Hitch has misgivings about Allie. It’s interesting to watch Harris and Mortensen play off each other, since they are two fine actors who understand that these men know each other too well to ever be anything more than deep friends. Zellweger, thankfully, does well in her role and is a fairly multilayered woman, which is so uncommon for a Western, and Irons is great as the villain, even if his British accent slips in every once in a while.
The film is based on a novel, and it shows, but that’s not a detriment. Too many films feel like they’re rushing to get to the conclusion and the next plot point, but “Appaloosa” is slow paced and well developed. That makes it sound incredibly serious, but there are some terrifically funny bits to be had too, like the exchange Virgil and Hitch share after an incredibly brief shootout. Though the final act drags out a bit too long, the film has all the length it needs and it gives the audience a better appreciation of the characters and more emotional resonance in general. Harris, who also directs and co-writes, has shot a film that is evocative of the old West, and there are some incredibly beautiful shots on display, especially one with a cougar watching a train heading into the distance.
The only other flaw apart from the pacing toward the end is the music. A strange complaint, to be sure, but the music does not feel like something that belongs in a Western. There are saxophones and weird upbeat violins that immediately taint the mood of certain scenes, and after the beautiful melodies of “The Assassination of Jesse James,” it’s weird to hear a Western with such a poor soundtrack.
Despite these slight misgivings, “Appaloosa” is a very good film that is completely worth the time and the effort of watching it. Plus, any movie that ends with someone riding into the sunset has to be at least somewhat good.