Friday, October 31, 2008

417 - Appaloosa review

“Appaloosa” is a Western that takes taking it easy seriously. Its heroes speak concisely and behave leisurely up until they fill their hands and cut down their opponents. They take their killin’ seriously, their pay even more so, and their lily white women most of all. There’s pleasure in the laid-back atmosphere, one that proves so pervasive throughout the film that the story takes a backseat to the ambiance.

The film follows the partnership of Virgil Cole (Ed Harris, who also directs)and Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen), men hired to run the town of Appaloosa. They’re professional “peacemakers,” which in Western lingo means they show up to crime-ridden towns and establish a new set of laws, the penalty being death by shooting for virtually any infraction.

Their partnership is seemingly airtight, their methods brutal and efficient. Vastly outnumbered wherever they go, the pair has a system that utilizes violent displays of authority and seemingly suicidal standoffs to break the moral of the local thugs. Their first hour in town sees them taking a shot of whiskey, handing over papers that declare Virgil the lord and master of Appaloosa, and blowing away three drunks at the local watering hole. Sort of makes one pine for the days where a man could make a living with his revolver, doesn’t it?

Virgil and Everett’s plans are thrown into disarray upon the arrival of Ally (Renee Zellweger), a flighty tart with her eye on the big man in town. First that’s Virgil, then Everett, then Virgil again, and then Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons), the New York villain the men were hired to drive out of Appaloosa in the first place. Ally’s liquid loyalties drive a wedge between the partners: Virgil carelessly succumbs to Ally’s charms, whereas Virgil, the patient “deputy” of the duo, solemnly contemplates his place as another’s right-hand man.

And oh does he contemplate. The film’s first half ranges from good to great, but then the character development largely freezes, the focus instead shifting to a meandering plot that yields a sustained chase free of suspense, tension, or even reason. The men wander around and chew on their lots in life without managing to reach a point of insight, and when they walk headfirst into a kill box of a shootout, we’re unconvinced that these often dirty fighters suddenly felt the need to fight in such a straightforward manner. When a filmmaker has characters with such natural rapport, why rush them into a plot that forces them to become raw functions of the script?

The film is well acted. Harris attempts (with mixed results) to resist the urge to lionize his character. Despite appearances, Mortensen is the true protagonist, a skilled man whose respect for his restrains him from speaking with utmost candor. His devotion is appreciated, but sometimes gratitude isn’t enough. And Jeremy Irons has little to do as the villain other than shout, but few actors have as good of an evil smile as he does, and it’s good to know that he’s still working.

Like Kevin Cosnter’s 2003 Western “Open Range,” this could be written off as a cinematic glorification of the director’s massive ego. Harris clearly doesn’t think as highly of himself as Costner does, though the latter man made a better movie, more consistent and resonant via its bloodshed and laconic discourse. Harris’ film primarily wants to show us men with guns and horses, “Appaloosa” is aimed squarely at Western fans, and though it’s a successful at aping so many of those earlier films, it in the process reminds us why there are so few, anymore. Casual genre fans need not apply.

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