Appaloosa (2008)


Director: Ed Harris

When you have ghosts, you call the Ghostbusters, but when you’re in the Old West and evil-doer Jeremy Irons guns down your marshal and his deputies in cold blood and you want your town back, the best people to call are the quiet but tough freelance lawmen Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch (played by Ed Harris and Viggo Mortensen respectively). Of course being that phones weren’t exactly a logical luxury back in the dangerous town Appaloosa in the Old West territory of New Mexico in the 1880’s, luckily for the town councilmen, when word of the lawless, powerful murderer Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons) gets around, the two men who’ve been keeping the peace for several years ride into town, figuring they’ll be able to do the same without any trouble.

“It’s what we do,” one of them dryly remarks and the other replies, “It is, ain’t it?” The subtle give-and-take banter in the earnest and laid-back yet commanding portrayals of its believable leads owe a great deal not just to the chemistry between Harris (who co-wrote the film and also directed) and Mortensen, working together for the first time since Cronenberg’s A History of Violence, but it also seems like it’s derived directly from the old classic westerns of the era of John Wayne.

It isn’t hard to imagine Rio Bravo stars John Wayne and Dean Martin sliding into these roles and it’s this old-fashioned feel—a deliberate choice by Harris who wanted to keep his film “in the classic mode”—that sets it apart from the modern, ultra-violent “revisionist approach” that’s made a comeback as of late (Entertainment Weekly, pg. 48; 8/22/08).

Based on crime writer Robert B. Parker’s novel, Harris further explained to EW that he brought the book to the Toronto Film Festival specifically to get it into the hands of his Violence costar while promoting their earlier film. And although “it’s a totally awkward proposition, handing another actor a book like that,” Harris continues, his gamble paid off and the two turn in Oscar worthy performances and the one that’s the most impressive comes directly from Mortensen (ever the chameleon losing himself in a role whether it’s this or Violence or last year’s brilliant Eastern Promises) as the sensitive, intelligent gunslinger who backs up Cole with an eight gauge-- no questions asked.

When Cole falls for a beguiling young widow, the flirtatious pianist Allison French (Renee Zellweger), something in the men’s dynamic changes as Cole, blinded by his affection is filled with tunnel vision, unable to make solid judgments when it comes to his new love. The camaraderie between the men, even when events escalate and threaten to tear them apart is what drives Appaloosa as an old-fashioned character piece that’s an obvious homage to the best of the genre, making Harris’ decision not to just insert senseless violence and ridiculous shoot-outs far more admirable as we realize his utter devotion to the classics that not only inspired him but made America fall in love with the genre in the first place.

It's been said that the western has evolved with each decade and more specifically that allegorically speaking you can tell what’s going on in the world by the type of character John Wayne was playing from the young, innocent, ever eager cowboy in the 30’s through the world-weary, beaten down and angry version a few decades later. This film seems to draw directly from the heyday of the 50’s—showing the danger of the Old West and the tendency to make lawmen jaded as in a funny scene right off the bat as Cole asks Zellweger's French if she’s a whore and she asks him how long he’s been killing people instead of “keeping the peace.” Yet there’s an optimism about Cole and a silent devotion and compassion in Hitch that makes what’s not being said in the sparse screenplay just as important as the joking slightly Elmore Leonard inspired dialogue.

Although this is sure to be overlooked in a sea of bigger and more expensive ad campaigns all fighting for Oscar and Harris even acknowledged in the same EW piece that “you can count on one hand—or maybe half a hand—the number of Westerns that were box offices successes in the past,” I’d urge you to take a chance on it whether you’re a student of the genre or one who normally would avoid it at all costs. Because, in the purity, simple beauty and classic style that is Appaloosa, Mr. Ed Harris has crafted something that feels both old and new, which is an incredibly refreshing combination for theatergoers in 2008.

Read the Book
Check out the Soundtrack

The Best of the Western Genre