The best thing about Ed Harris' Appaloosa (2008), his screen realization of the 2006 Robert Parker novel, is that it's easygoing, casual, and mostly familiar, same time that the worst thing about Ed Harris' Appaloosa is that it's easygoing, casual, and mostly familiar.
Harris, give him credit, has the confidence to take a fairly strong story and let it unfold, to dwell on what interests him (the badinage between two men of longstanding friendship and a woman of dubious character), allowing events of lesser import to swiftly pass us by (of the film's one large-scale shootout, someone had this to say: "That was quick." "Yeah, everyone could shoot.").
The film's strongest and most complex relationship is, of course, between the two male protagonists: Virgil Cole (Harris) and Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen): two lawmen-for-hire who have worked together so long, and have known each other so thoroughly that they hardly ever need talk when positioning for a possible gunfight. Cole plants himself front and center, an authority figure and target meant to draw fire; Hitch hangs back, usually seated in a chair or leaning against the corner that grants him maximum coverage, a massive 8-gauge shotgun cradled in both hands.
As it is in war, so it is in love--Hitch sees her first, a vision in tight corsets and feathered hats: Allison French (Renee Zellwegger) has come to town seeking a job as an organist, and Hitch trails after her like a predator sniffing prey, but it's Cole who introduces himself and eventually wins her heart. French shakes matters up between the two men, forces them to focus their sights on her womanly charms, helps create a tension that is eventually settled by gunplay and sacrifice.
In terms of visual scheme Harris the director gives Harris the actor the hero shots as befits his character, but just as generously grants Mortensen the mystery and reserve of a powerful if taciturn ronin, prowling in the shadows until his talents are needed. Time and again the men go into action and you see how they work together, either dealing with the usual problems (disposing of drunken thugs in a bar), or responding to something entirely new (two gunfighters--Cole's equals, he tells Hitch--come into town and change the game considerably).
But have I mentioned the easy familiarity of the material? Seems to me that I've seen this all before, not just in the Westerns of Howard Hawks or John Ford, but in the more recent fiction of Larry McMurtry, whose 1985 Pulitzer winning novel Lonesome Dove I suspect was a tidal influence on Parker's conception of his characters. Cole and Hitch could be reshuffled versions of Augustus McCrae and Woodrow Call; the scene where Hitch has to hold down an out-of-control Cole could have been Harris' restaging of a similar scene in Dove.
Allison French could be a composite of Dove's Lorena Wood and Clara Allen, only cruder, less substantial--frankly French as Zellwegger plays her is fun to watch, but makes little sense (Why would so much clever ambition come to a small town? Why after showing fickle loyalty does she remain constant, after all?). Very possibly in Parker's novel she enjoyed more coherence, she was the vibrant and complex woman of the wild West she is meant to be here, but the film needs the running time of a mini-series to properly develop its characters (and in fact Dove was adapted into a series--is I think an excellent example of such an adaptation--in 1989). In Appaloosa only Cole and Hitch's characters show any roundedness, their relationship any fullness; as usual, women's roles are sacrificed in favor of the male.
It doesn't help that poor Zellwegger's elfin features are exaggerated to comic extremes by her hair and makeup (the poor girl--who can be very pretty, when properly presented--looks like a leprechaun suffering an allergy attack). It doesn't help that playing the small, practically throwaway role of Katie (a prostitute) is the gorgeous Ariadna Gil, she of the welcoming pout and almost effortless sensuality--beside her, poor Zellwegger has all the appeal of a, well, bee-stung leprechaun.
It doesn't help that Jeremy Irons plays the brutally cunning Randall Bragg. I've got nothing against Irons as an actor, he moves fast in fight sequences and towards the end betrays a sly sense of humor, but who came up with the disastrous idea of having Irons play Bragg channeling Daniel Day-Lewis channeling John Huston in There Will Be Blood? It's too bizarre an effect--like the echo of an echo, bouncing through miles of corridors; you keep dreading the day someone will come up with the idea of actually resurrecting Huston (digitally--or worse), just so he can play bad guy one more time.
Harris is not unclumsy with the bigscreen frame; he manages to create slow sweeps across the landscape that convey unspoken drama, is able to stage crisply edited, strangely ungory action with a minimum of fuss. Harris is not, unlike Andrew Dominik in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), out to create a newish look for the genre (Assassination appears to have been lit with winter sunlight filtered through the whitest canvas imaginable), nor is Harris able to stage genuinely upsetting violence (In Assassination the sheer size and anatomical detail of the shot wounds are such that you can't help but flinch every time someone points a gun at someone's head). I don't think he's out to do an ironic postmodern take, unlike the Coen Brothers' clever (maybe too clever) No Country for Old Men (2007); nor does he intend to subvert the genre, as David Cronenberg does (brilliantly, I think) in A History of Violence (2005). Harris' film is more like James Mangold's 3:10 to Yuma (2007), a largely straightforward, slightly absurd, considerably bloated remake of a Western classic. You enjoy it, but it doesn't break new ground, it doesn't show you something startling or new, it doesn't make your blood sing.
First published in Businessworld 10.17.08