When the Western died, it did so because of two distinct reasons. First, the media had so saturated the audience with as many warmed over oaters as possible that even fervent devotees screamed “enough”. In addition, the Europeans were deconstructing the genre, picking out its more operatic elements and leaving the spaghetti fed horseplay for another day. While filmmakers throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s tried to revive the cinematic category, it wasn’t until a further artistic reevaluation (begun with Clint Eastwood’s amazing Unforgiven) proved that post-modern sensibilities could merge with old school saddle sores. Actor turned filmmaker Ed Harris wants to go back to the days of simple sagebrush storytelling, and with one major exception, everything he does in his adaptation of the novel Appaloosa is nothing short of brilliant.
The tiny Western town of Appaloosa is having a hard time with one of its more menacing citizens - ranch owner and troublemaker Randall Bragg. After killing their sheriff and his deputies, the city fathers see no other choice than to hire professional lawman Virgil Cole and his sharpshooter sidekick Everett Hitch. Within a very short time, the duo restores order and puts Bragg in his place. The arrival of pretty piano player Allison French changes everything once again. While Virgil is instantly smitten, Everett is suspect of her ways. Sure enough, she locks onto Cole, but lets her eye wander toward other men in town. When a witness is willing to testify that Bragg killed the previous sheriff, a trial is held. The arrival of hired guns Ring and Mackie Shelton suggest something is amiss. Sure enough, Bragg is convicted, and the mercenaries use Cole’s emotions to mandate his release. It’s up to the old partners to put things right, or ruin their reputation - and camaraderie - forever.
It’s such a shame that Appaloosa contains a massive, almost irredeemable flaw. It’s heroic and moving, a meditation on personal friendship and professional duty. It contains one of Viggo Mortensen’s most mesmerizing turns. We could follow his enigmatic Everett Hitch for a whole other movie. The way he dresses, the way he holds himself both in and out of conflict, the way he responds to Harris’ characters needs, its non-erotic male bonding at its best. At its core, Appaloosa is a buddy film, albeit one where the heroes are too tired to trade on their bravado. Instead, Hitch and Cole come into a locale, lay down their law, and wait for the bad guys to show off and step in it. A quick bit of gunplay later, and frontier justice is restored.
Some could complain that laidback lawman Cole is as big a problem as the film’s main mistake. He is a reluctant regulator, the kind of man who wears every kill on his worn and wrinkled face. Harris the director gives Harris the actor plenty of time to brood. Some may think it too much, but in a narrative that is trying to take on the mythos of how the West was won, it works wonderfully. Besides, Harris surrounds himself with such an amazing cast that we forgive his frequent indulgences. Jeremy Irons is so ornery and officious that his random acts of extreme violence seem perfectly suited to his stature. B-movie fave Lance Henrickson shows up an hour in as a hateful hired gun, and he rides his weather beaten ways directly to a sensational showdown. From Timothy Spall as a harried city official to Harris’ father Bob as a curmudgeonly judge, the supporting cast is excellent.
That’s why the sudden appearance of the strewn and superfluous Renee Zellweger almost ruins everything. Up until the moment she arrives in the title town, the film is following a standard pattern of standoffs and machismo. We anticipate the arrival of a love interest, a Claudia Cardinale type to bring a little lilac and lace to the proceedings. But with her Dr. 90210 expression and inability to properly position her little lady lost, the Oscar winner becomes a dead-end detriment. Whenever she is onscreen, we cringe at her spun sugar stereotyping. Then she starts throwing herself at anything in pants and the critical gloves come off. There is never an explainable motivation for what Allison French does. Mortensen tries, saying that maybe she just always “needs a man…any man”. By the time she’s trapped Cole and cavorts naked with Henriksen’s callous cowpoke, you start running through the remaining townsfolk, wondering who she’ll cling to next.
It’s not just the sexual speciousness that aids French’s undermining effect on the film. Zellweger’s character is the standard catalyst, someone that comes in and instantly destroys decades of friendship, professionalism, and purpose. Harris goes from cold eyed lawman to weepy school boy in the matter of a single scene, and before we know it, he’s forgotten everything that made him the highly respected lawman he is. Mortensen’s Hitch doesn’t dissuade him, since the soft touch of a non-whore is something quite rare in the Old West. So French is supposed to be something worth dying for, something worth wasting everything that came before to cling to and appreciate. And she shows her dowdy dedication by lunging at anything with a penis.
Some might say this is too harsh, that to blame the actress for Appaloosa‘s staid storytelling and ambitiously long sequences is grasping for easy excuses. But Harris does so many things right here that, with a different female lead, it would all end up a clear contemporary classic. Instead of drawing out the firefights like epic confrontations between able bodied men and ammunition, the gun blasts are quick and efficient. The politics of the town play as much a part in the confrontations with Bragg as the villains need for power. Hitch’s secret honor helps deliver us from many of the more mannered sequences, and when the truth is finally revealed, the matter of fact manner in which Harris treats the romantic treason is wonderful to watch.
Had an evocative foreign femme fatale been inserted into the Allison French role, an actress who could effectively sell modern promiscuity as some kind of clash of cultures, we’d celebrate the performance. But in a movie of palpable pluses, Zellweger proves once again her resemblance to the mathematical null set. She singlehandedly turns something masterful into a well-meaning almost-miss.