Tuesday, January 13, 2009


A simple, straight-forward Western tale of hired guns protecting some innocent townsfolk from a barbarous outlaw, Appaloosa is never less than good. It's a sturdy, competent film, well shot, acted, and edited. But, though it's a novelty to see a Western at all in this day and age (and even moreso to see one that doesn't take a revisionist approach to the genre), there's little to distinguish the film. It plays out agreeably enough, and the overall look and feel of the film has a handsome authenticity to it, yet it dissipates almost instantly in the memory. It would be the perfect film to watch while sick or on an airplane, a passable time-filler to help endure a couple of passive hours.

The film is aptly directed by Ed Harris, and he also stars as Virgil Cole, a man who, with his partner, has made a career as a freelance sheriff, going from frontier town to frontier town to help enforce the law. After the villanous Bragg offs their sheriff, he's hired by the townspeople of Appaloosa to bring things back under control. Bragg and his men are slowly taking over, using violence and intimidation to help themselves to the spoils of civilization while ignoring its rules. Cole is an old pro at this work; his first move is to have the elders sign an old-timey sort of Patriot Act, declaring that Cole's word is law. Free to handle the problem however he sees fit, he's very soon got Bragg all but swinging from a gallows. But things are thwarted by Cole's dalliance into romance--he enters into a serious relationship with a woman who's new in town and finds himself confronted with the complications of love, jealousy, and sexual fidelity. He's new at this game, and the consequences of this relationship bleed over into his work, affecting his pride and his judgement at critical moments.

If it all sounds familiar, it very much is. The film suffers from this, sure, but Harris's direction is lean and taut. He moves the picture in and out of scenes with a speedy efficiency. This is particularly notable when the inevitable gunfights play out in an approximation of real-time--the outbursts of violence are over in mere seconds. Using this technique, the film avoids the fetishisation of gunplay and concentrates its attentions on its finest assets--the characters.

If there's anything to savor in Appaloosa, it's Viggo Mortensen's performance as Cole's partner. Mortensen and Harris share an easy chemistry, and the relationship between their characters is surprisingly intimate--when was the last time you saw two grizzled gunslingers talking about their feelings or searching desperately for le mot juste together? But Mortensen outshines everything else in the film. He stalks about the edges of the frame, communicates affection for Cole and the work they do together in silences, strained smiles, and short, punchy, meaningful sentences. Mortensen can be a goofy presence in films; he sometimes seems as if he would be out of place anywhere. But, in Appaloosa,he carries himself with a gait and manner that seem wholly of the time and place of the film's setting. When he stands sideways during a climactic duel (to shrink the target zone for his rival), he seems more authentic to the period than the costumes and sets (and horses) that surround him.