Review by Jack Foley
THE Western continues to be a neglected genre for filmmakers, spawning only one or two revisits per year. Fortunately, when a director does get back in the saddle, the result is usually worth seeing.
Ed Harris continues that trend with Appaloosa, an ode to friendship that reunites him with A History Of Violence co-star Viggo Mortensen, and which exhibits both traditional and revisionist sensibilities.
Set in the Old West territory of New Mexico in 1882, the film picks up as city marshal Virgil Cole (Harris) and his deputy and partner Everett Hitch (Mortensen) agree to take on a new job overseeing the small mining community of Appaloosa, which is currently living in fear of a ruthless rancher named Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons).
But while Cole proves himself to be an astute lawman, his life and friendship become complicated by the arrival of provocative newcomer Allison French (Renee Zellweger), whose unconventional ways threaten to provide a dangerous distraction.
Unfolding at a leisurely pace, Harris’ film (he co-wrote, directs and stars) is first and foremost about the relationship that exists between the two lawmen, and how it is gradually compromised by the presence of Allison French and the changing morality of the time.
As such, it offers a fascinating insight into Old West life and what it took to survive, with the threat of violence continually lingering over proceedings. Harris doesn’t choose to exploit this, though, and his film suffers slightly from a curiously mixed tone, failing to make the most of some of its larger possibilities.
Irons’ villain, for example, isn’t afforded the screen-time he probably deserves, while the darkness hinted at in Cole’s own past is never properly explored. Both feel like missed opportunities.
The gunplay, too, is sparingly delivered, although Harris proves adept at handling the set pieces and invests them with the same level of authenticity that Kevin Costner brought to Open Range.
And he also draws another enigmatic performance from co-lead Mortensen, whose cool, composed Everett Hitch rides off with all the film’s best moments. Zellweger, too, is typically assured and appears to be revelling in the moral complexity that Harris’ screenplay affords her character.
The overall result is a flawed but frequently enjoyable experience that tips its hat to both the styles of Eastwood and Sturges, whilst maintaining a strong identity of its own. You should saddle up for the ride.
Running time: 115mins
UK DVD Release: February 2, 2009