Men are weathered in Appaloosa, a one-saloon town in 1882’s New Mexico Territory. Their legs are bowed, their figures lanky, their faces hardened by wind and sun. They don’t trust each other much, either, and do what they need to for money. Passing time on a front porch at the start of Appaloosa, a crew of such men serve as grim visual poetry — holding a line that can’t be held any longer.
The first change in their routine comes in the form of the local marshal and a couple of deputies, riding over to Randall Bragg’s (Jeremy Irons) ranch. They mean to arrest his men, on his porch, accusing them of recent rape and murders. Randall faces the accusers on their horses, taller than any of the hands who flank him. “You’re outside your jurisdiction, marshal,” Randall drawls, peeping out from beneath his hat’s brim. Pushed to give up a couple of men to face charges, Randall shakes his head. “No, I can’t spare them.” And with that, he shoots the lawmen dead.
Randall and his men — thieves, brutes, and hard drinkers all — are feeling pretty well fixed now. At least until the elders in Appaloosa decide to call in a couple of gunmen. Virgil Cole (Ed Harris) and Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen) arrive in town with a few conditions, namely, that as city marshal, Virgil makes all the rules. They’ve made a living imposing order on chaos, Everett says. They’re peacekeepers, he says, helping other folks to get along. At the same time, they can never quite predict what’s going to happen. Each job brings surprises, rarely pleasant. “Life has a way of making the foreseeable that which never happens,” Everett rhapsodizes, “and the unforeseeable that which your life becomes.” So now you know: this movie will be about what Everett doesn’t foresee.
This begins with Ally French (Renée Zellweger). She arrives in Appaloosa one morning on the train. Everett spots her first, following after her, slowly, on his horse, his eight-gauge shotgun on his arm (as always), his eye drawn to this woman in a fine traveling dress, carrying her own valises and squinting against the sunlight as she makes her way across the rutted street. At the town’s only restaurant, she sits at a table with a tablecloth, makes a scene when Chin (Bounthanh Xaynhachack), the cook, suggests he can’t serve her biscuits apart from breakfast. She’s saved in this dispute by Virgil, finishing his coffee at his own table across the room. Everett enters the room just in time to be introduced as the under-marshal. And with that, he’s left to observe the accelerated flirtation between Virgil and Ally. (“I think,” understates Virgil, “that Mrs. French might become exclusively interesting.”)
It’s a good place for him, being the film’s narrator. As such, he’s suitably laconic, much like the men in so many other movie versions of the old west. He’s also careful and respectful, especially keen to emulate and also protect his mentor Virgil. A graduate of West Point and a former soldier like his father, Everett says he left soldiering because it didn’t allow “for much expansion of the soul.” By contrast, his work with Virgil has been premised on “expanding,” not least because they’ve never really had a single place to stay or a permanent “jurisdiction.” Ally, though, she’s something of a wrench in this pattern, a point made clear when she announces — after an evening with Virgil that leaves them both grinning like kids on Christmas the next morning — that they’ll be buying a house under construction at one end of town, a house with a porch and a sitting room.
Erk. Now the men business is complicated. Virgil knows it, Everett knows it, and Ally revels in it. Still, the gunmen still have a job to do; they’re living in a Western, after all, one more conventional than revisionist. And so Appaloosa follows the evolving tension between Virgil and Everett, as they try to keep focus on their masculine obligations and loyalties, their hard-won affections for one another, even in the face of the looming domestication Ally embodies. Like Vera Miles in The Searchers or Grace Kelly in High Noon, Ally appears to represent the end of an era, the end of an intra-male community, men who, as Virgil puts it, spend occasional time with “whores and squaws,” but are most comfortable playing cards and riding the plains with one another, and when necessary, shooting each other.
Ally’s disruption is repeatedly made visible, as Everett watches her through doors and windows, even, at one point, through a telescope as she frolics in a river, stark naked, with yet another man. But her chaos — even more troubling than the chaos of guns, as these shootouts do at least have rules — is most acutely demonstrated when she corners Everett in the un-built house, with beams erected but without actual walls. Pinning him to a doorframe, she kisses him and presses herself against him, until he protests. This romance, he insists will never happen, for he is faithful to his man. “I’m with Virgil,” he says as her face contorts with frustration and surprise, “And so are you.”
If the conflict in Appaloosa, based on Robert B. Parker’s 2005 novel, is typical and sometimes disjointed, its rendering is frankly lovely. Like a lot of Westerns, this one relies on stunning landscapes, buttes and big skies, but it also has the benefit of the men who inhabit those landscapes — tough and damaged, bent, injured, but resolute. Also like a lot of Westerns, it is about the end of expectations and possibilities, in the name of civilization.
Here again, Ally is the touchstone. Though Virgil and Everett make multiple sacrifices to ensure that Randall is punished for his crimes, he eludes them, remakes himself, and becomes a wealthy citizen in town, a man with fine clothes and clout. He becomes the film’s most profound emblem of civilization’s corruptions, ruthless and refined, utterly disloyal and expecting the same of others. Of course, he uses Ally to get what he wants, forcing Virgil to make difficult, even crippling choices. Also of course, she never sees what harm she’s done. That’s left to Everett, observant and stanch, a supremely weathered man.