I don’t think it’s much of a secret around these parts that I really wanted to be on board for “Appaloosa.” I’m in love with the new resurgence of the western genre, even if I get irritated when people refer to “No Country for Old Men” and “There Will Be Blood” as evidence of it.
This, of course, redirects credit due to a modern lineage that began with Kevin Costner’s back-to-basics “Open Range,” exploded with creativity with David Milch’s “Deadwood” and settled into a hell of a groove last year with James Mangold’s “3:10 to Yuma” and Andrew Dominik’s “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert ford.”
But lulls and misfires are to be expected of a genre finding its footing in a brave new Hollywood seemingly willing to finance such efforts, and it pains me to say “Appaloosa” is an example.
Lifted from the pages of a Robert Parker novel painstakingly simple in its narrative approach, Ed Harris’s adaptation suffers in its admittedly commendable insistence to be faithful to the source. The result is a stilted narrative with vague characterizations and otherwise awkward interaction.
Ed Harris and Viggo Mortensen star as Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch respectively, gun-hands that move from town to town restoring order for a fee, establishing the law and governance of the country’s last frontier. Fifteen years together can breed a relationship of intuition. Virgil and Everett sense each other’s disposition, depend on each other like extensions of themselves. The interplay was fascinating in novel form and is almost there on the screen.
When the duo arrive in Appaloosa, the city has been forced to its knees by a quick-draw rancher, Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons) and his band of misfits. By-laws are posted, Cole is given command of the town’s law and order and the wheels are set in motion for plenty of steely-eyed encounters and enough shoot-outs (and near shoot-outs) to satisfy the appetite.
When Ms. Allie French (Renee Zellweger) arrives on the scene, the threads begin to fray. Allie is a dainty little thing, a widow, and Cole takes a liking to her immediately. His lacking sexual history seems much more buried within the character than I would have expected, though there are glimmers of it here and there, but mainly it’s a head-over-heels scenario that the audience can go along with for the most part.
In Allie, Virgil sets himself (and Hitch) up for vulnerability. They get Bragg’s number in the form of a former ranch hand willing to testify to the outlaw’s murdering Appaloosa’s former marshal, but the circumstances begin to go sour when things become personal, probably for the first time in Virgil’s life.
There is a moment in the film when Virgil explains to Everett the difference between the two men. “You’ve got feelings,” he says. “Feelings get you killed.”
It’s a fine hard boiled beat and all, but it certainly flies in the face of the character’s actions at the time, trekking across a desert to save a woman as content with one alpha male as the next. And the added notion that Virgil is a man driven by the task at hand and that he’ll revisit whatever love he had for Allie when that task is complete, well…it doesn’t settle in a believable way.
What “Appaloosa” is good for, however, is atmosphere. Harris might be working with a clumsy through line, but he evokes the setting like he’d tried his hand at the genre before. Every inch of the town feels real, as does Virgil’s conviction in the early stages. The gunfights are awkward and, therefore, genuine.
Oh, and Jeff Beal’s score just soars, a classic new staple in the genre to go alongside Marco Beltrami’s exciting work in “3:10 to Yuma” last year.
For his part, Harris is outstanding in the role of Virgil Cole. His blue eyes reflect a scorching sun, blue like two deep pockets of sea. When he says he always tells the truth, you believe him if only because you understand that he’d see the simplicity of it all.
And when he makes sure Allie understands that he believes Everett’s side of a twisted story over her, with the quiet and matter-of-fact resolve you wouldn’t have expected at that moment, the sincerity is thick in the air.
Mortensen, however, seems to be unsure of his character’s place. Part narrator, part awkwardly active member in the proceedings, he lugs a giant 8-gauge shotgun around like the burden of the film itself, consistently off an already elusive mark.
Irons (and his painfully struggling accent) is wasted, while Zellweger proves more of an irritation than one would anticipate out of an already irritating character. But the ensemble feels organic nonetheless, part of a consistent if uneven narrative.
There is a point, however, somewhere in the film’s second act — I can’t be sure exactly where — when the layers start to wither off the vine, exposing a lacking narrative flow and mysterious character motivations. The final result is a “payoff” that isn’t as touching as it might have been and the empty feeling of wasted potential settles in. And not to criticize a film for what is isn’t, rather than what it is, but I could help shaking the notion in the final15 or 20 minutes that the story was meant for a more epic telling. Perhaps it ultimately limited itself by refusing a broader canvas.
But it isn’t worth disavowing. This is an exciting and unique addition to the genre in its modern, and exceedingly revisionist form. There is plenty of thematic relevance regarding the responsibility of power, but it’s all for naught surrounded by a story that doesn’t have much of a creative leg to stand on.