Appaloosa (2008)

Dir. Ed Harris
Starring: Ed Harris, Viggo Mortensen, Renee Zellwegger, Jeremy Irons, etc.

I don’t get to say this often, so I’m relishing it now: I recommend this film to John. I know so little about John’s tastes in film, but I thought of him while watching this. I can recommend this to Mitchell, too. Next, I’d say Penny, Kevin, Chris, and Grace would be interested. I don’t think Joel and Jill will be too enthused, and Don might like this, but he might be bored, too.

I think seeing the film on dvd would be fine, but if you’re looking for something good to see, this is worth checking out (although Larrilynn didn’t care for this, giving this a 4 or 5/10; she thought it was boring). There are problems with this film, but many more strengths (so much so that I thought of giving this an 8). Rachel Getting Married, Iron Man, Be Kind, Rewind, Happy Go Lucky and now this film are favorites of 2008.

Two men, Virgil Cole (Harris) and Everett Hitch (Mortensen) are hired by a town to provide law and order after the previous town sheriff is gunned down by a local businessman, Bragg (Irons). The problem is no one can prove Bragg killed the sheriff. Cole and Hitch find a way to bring him to justice, while other complications arise. I’d describe the film as an independent Western, especially one made by actors–i.e. the characters are interesting. But that’s not to say the overall writing (plot) is not good because it is, but the narrative is not the main aspect of the film, especially in a Hollywood sense. (It’s not inaccessible at all, though.) I think fans of Westerns should see this. It’s an interesting and worthy take on the genre. Btw, the film is based on a book.

This film is a good contrast to Open Range, the Kevin Costner Western starring Costner and Robert Duvall as cowboy buddies. Both films are buddy films that involve a woman who complicates their relationship. The difference is that Open Range felt like the filmmakers crammed in all the Western cliches into one film and largely developed the films in predictable ways. Appaloosa avoids the story and character development that you would expect given the premise. The filmmakers aren’t interested in telling Manichean story where the good guys simply prevail. The characters are complex, not easy to pidgin hole. You think they’re going to be a certain way, but then behave in ways that thwart your prediction. For example, when Cole gets complete authority to make the town laws and behaves in savage and irrational ways, I thought he was going to become a brutish tyrant. Cole has problems with some words (which also fed my expectations), and turns to Hitch for help. Because of that and Cole’s comment that Hitch is not as good a gunfighter/killer because he feels too much, I anticipated that Hitch would be the more civilized, cultured friend, who may be faced with stopping his friend. The film avoids these developments and create more complex characters. Even the love interest, Allie French (Zellwegger), is interesting. At one point, I thought she was going to be the traitorous tramp, but she’s not. She’s not really likable (I can see Penny and Grace complaining), but she’s not unsympathetic either. She appears to be shallow, essentially a golddigger, but really she’s just afraid of being left alone without any means to survive, making her jumping to whichever man has the best chance of providing her security more understandable and sympathetic.

Another interesting thing is the relationships, especially the notion of love. I’m not comfortable calling Cole’s feelings for Allie love, but it’s not simply carnal or superficial either. He is attracted to her, but his feelings for her are more than that; he’s drawn by the idea of her, the fact that she possesses the qualities of the ideal, civilized wife. It’s something missing in his hard, ultra-male life. While the need for security motivates Allie, I wouldn’t say she’s not capable of a more substantive relationship with Cole, either.

The friendship between Cole and Hitch is also complex. I citing specifics, but the filmmakers seem to want to mute the bond between the men. Unlike other buddy Westerns, there doesn’t seem to be a strong bond from chemistry (a la Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) or a manly code (Wild Bunch). They experienced things together, but the affection and connection seems muted–almost as if the filmmakers were consciously avoiding the trappings of a buddy film.

This leads me to one of the flaws of the film, namely the acting. What I wrote above makes me think that the actors (Harris/Mortensen/Zellwegger) lacked chemistry, but now that I think about the problem more, I think the acting and direction are the cause. Right at the beginning of the film, I felt the acting or the dialogue was a little stiff; or just not natural. As the film progressed, I got the sense the actors weren’t really comfortable. It makes me wonder if Harris, as director, in trying to avoid these cliches and simple characterizations and relationships confused the actors or made them uncomfortable. Maybe I’m totally off base and making more out of it. (If any of you see this, let me know what you think.) One last thing about the acting. A part of me feels that Harris, Mortensen and Zellwegger are deserving of at least nominations for best and supporting actors, but the acting makes me hesitate. I’d be more comfortable if the award were for best character. One more thing, to end this section on a positive note, I loved the Harris and Mortensen’s faces–great, rugged and manly.

I mentioned how much I liked the characters, but I must mention the plot, particularly the interesting developments that occurred: Cole and Hitch establish themselves; capture and hold Bragg; the trial, Braggs escape with the Shelton brothers (Lance Henricksen–he gained weight); the showdown with Shelton; the showdown with Bragg. This aspect of the film would appeal to fans of good Hollywood (read: entertaining) Westerns.

Also, I don’t know much about make-up and costumes, but I think this film might be deserving of nominations in those categories. I liked Viggo and Harris’ wardrobe especially, not so much for the authenticity (not that I really know authentic clothing of that time period), but the clothes and hats just looked cool. A word about the camera work and cinematography. Nothing comes to my mind as outstanding, all though Malick made getting excited about footage of wide open American space all but impossible.

Oh, and narration at the beginning and the end (especially at the end) was so unnecessary. I’m wondering if someone forced Harris to do it. The one at the end was particularly annoying.

3 Responses to “Appaloosa (2008)”

  1. Reid

    Tony said

    Also saw Appaloosa last night at the dollar theater. I’m not a huge fan of Westerns. And this movie doesn’t really change my opinion much. Renee Zellweger is much more suited to comedies, in my opinion. The lead actors were good, their friendship was humorous and believable. Other than that, though, it was simply a fairly decent movie. No real action. No real reaction.

    My reply:

    You didn’t think the characters and their relationships were pretty complex and rare in that respect? I don’t see characterization, relationships or the plot development like that very often in film, particularly narrative based films. Harris’s effort to avoid any simplistic or predictable characterization or predictable plot developments, which, while that may have lead to some drawbacks (which I touched upon in my review), I think, in total, is really commendable and lead to satisfying results.

  2. pen

    I really liked this movie! And not just because my Viggo is in it (although that added to the visceral enjoyment). I liked the relationship between Cole and Hitch the two main characters. Harris makes a choice to be subtle about their relationship, but their ease together, the way they interact show their care for each other.

    The one discordant note is Renee Zellweger as Allie. I think she could have done so much more with that role. To me, Zellweger relies on the dialog to show what inner demons she may be fighting. She does a good job at the hyper, need for attention parts, but the other parts: her need for security, her tenacity and ruthless dogged self-preservation could have been awesome in the hands of another actress. One who comes to mind is Jodi Foster in Silence of the Lambs. She does so much with her expressions, body language, her tone and her eyes in that movie. I wish Renee could have done more of that.

    I only wish I saw this film in the theater on a big screen. There are some lovely shots and you can tell the cinematographer is gifted. Also, I think Harris directs with a deft, confident and spare hand. I liked this film a lot.

  3. Reid


    I know what you mean about Zellweger, and I sort of agree. Although I don’t think she did a bad job. Also, as I mentioned above, the actors (particularly Mortensen and Zellweger) seemed uncomfortable and even uncertain; as if they didn’t know what they weren’t clear about Harris’ vision of the characters. It was almost like they was a little bit of egg-shell walking, as if they were really hard to avoid predictable or two-dimensional characters.

    I hope John gets to see this one day because I want to know what he thinks about it.

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