3.5 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund
In an interview promoting “Appaloosa,” Ed Harris, the film's director, co-writer, and lead star, observed the near-death of the Western in modern cinema, saying he could count the recent successful examples “on one hand – or maybe half a hand.” Thanks to his own efforts, Harris can now proudly extend another finger. His classic, no-frills picture, an adaptation of Robert Parker's 2005 buddy-cop-on-the-range novel, is a fine addition to the endangered genre. However, if you're looking for shoot 'em up thrills, you're drinking at the wrong saloon. This intimate character study is more “Brokeback Mountain” than “Rio Bravo.”
Don't get it twisted, brohams – this is no gay affair, but its primary focus and flowing undercurrent is the relationship between two gunslinging cowboys (played with top-notch chemistry by Harris and Viggo Mortensen), nestled in a story with hardly any gunslinging at all. When marshall-for-hire Virgil Cole (Harris) and his right-hand deputy, Everett Hitch (Mortensen), roll into Appaloosa, a one-horse town in 1882 New Mexico, they certainly come armed for battle. Hired by the town's politicians to restore order in the shadow of formidable outlaw Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons) and his pack of goons, Cole and Hitch act quickly, killing some peace disturbers right off the bat and laying down their own form of martial law. After that, they quiet down, and so does the film, shifting its attention to the dynamics of the duo's playful, personal bond. The threat of Bragg still looms, and the occasional standoff ensues, but “Appaloosa” draws its fire from less obvious sources.
Cole and Hitch's alliance is tested – as is our patience – with the arrival of Allison French, an increasingly toxic tramp-in-distress played by the increasingly horrific Renee Zellweger. I don't know what's become of the natural, spunky girl-next-door from “Jerry Maguire,” but she's never been more far away or missed than here, an abysmal low point in the actress' career. Squinty-eyed, rosacea-cheeked, and perpetually pucker-faced, Zellweger doesn't just make French appropriately detestable, she mucks up Harris' otherwise strong show. As mentioned, Harris and Mortensen have a killer rapport – it's lived-in, it's funny, and it's delicately underplayed. Harris gives Cole a coiled-up, authoritative coolness and Mortensen matches it with a knowing aplomb. The only good thing that can be said about Zellweger is that she is one with her character. French is the wedge threatening to divide the film's core companionship – she latches onto both men, especially Cole – and Zellweger is the virus threatening to infect the film itself. Thankfully, her presence is only mildly malignant.
For all its narrative subtleties, “Appaloosa” soldiers ahead with surprisingly brute force. Save Cole, who notes the length of he and Hitch's partnership and reveals a sordid past of trysts with hookers, nary a single character is given any back story. From the first frame, the film dives right into the story at hand. That the story lacks many bullets may bore certain viewers, but I found the minimalistic approach quite interesting. Harris, whose only other directorial credit is 2000's Oscar-nominated biopic, “Pollock,” uses that same approach in designing his sophomore effort. His take on the Western is restrained and traditional. Clearly an admirer of the work of John Ford and Sergio Leone, he gives us all the trappings of the genre, usually in carefully framed shots: wide open desert spaces, big blue skies, winding railroads overseen by chop-licking mountain lions, a town that looks like it's right out of a 1950s back lot, and even scalp-hunting American Indians. (I kept waiting for a tumbleweed to blow by.) Die-hard Western fans will revel in Harris' adherence to this style.
During my screening, a woman behind me observed that Harris' craggy, square-jawed face “looks like the mountains.” She was right. Looking at the focused four-time Oscar nominee, in the wake of Paul Newman's death, it's clear that he's in the top tier of our cherished, seasoned leading men. He finds a kindred spirit in Mortensen, a slightly younger star with a similar countenance, whom he previously worked with in 2005's “A History of Violence” (which reportedly planted the seed for this new collaboration). If they'd been working in the era when Westerns were all the rage, we could easily imagine this pair starring side-by-side in a slew of them. Their strong visual and visceral match-up is crippled only by Zellweger, whose awkward mug weighs down a movie that's notable for, but deeper than, its face values.