CAPSULE:Two hired mercenaries are made deputies in a small New Mexico town to round up a rancher who murdered a deputy. A fine cast produces a surprisingly low-key outing. It sports a plot like a Western from 45 years ago, but pacing familiar from LONESOME DOVE. APPALOOSA is an unexceptional Western but one with a good eye for detail. It was produced by, directed by, and stars Ed Harris, who also sings a little. Rating: high +1 (-4 to +4) or 6/10
As the film begins Everett Hitch (played by Viggo Mortensen) philosophizes in voice-over that the foreseeable never really happens and the unforeseeable is what your life becomes. That is apparently what happens to him and his partner Virgil Cole (Ed Harris), two lawmen and hired killers, when they are engaged by the town of Appaloosa, New Mexico to bring in a local rancher who murdered a deputy. The rancher is Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons) who, with a small army of ranch hands, is a law unto himself. The two are good killers and do not expect it to be a big job. Ah, but the unforeseen is what their life becomes as they begin a long battle of wits against Bragg. Meanwhile, Cole falls in love for the first time with Allison French (Renee Zellweger), a widow lady who comes to town and immediately is attracted to Cole.
The plot of the two lawmen trying to capture and bring to trial a powerful rancher is the sort you might find in a Western that would have been made in the 1960s. This plot has a little more depth in that Virgil Cole is sort of a dubious hero. First he insists on becoming the town dictator, with his own set of laws to make easier his task of bringing law and order. He is a killer with a badge. And the badge is the only thing that makes him better than Bragg, who is also undeniably a killer. If any character is sympathetic it is not Cole but Hitch who is in the partnership a definite second among equals. While the plotting is 1960s, the low-key style and pacing are post-LONESOME DOVE. This gives us more time to get to know the characters, and the film covers a long time both on the watches of the audience and in the lives of the characters.
There is no brash Western score of the sort that Elmer Bernstein would have given APPALOOSA. Instead we hear only three or fewer instruments at any one time. The photography is often dark figures on a bright background to give the feel of the hot New Mexico climate. This would all be bleak if it were not for some light dialog, especially between Hitch and Cole. With one running gag Cole has a propensity for using impressive words that are just on the tip of his mind but no nearer. He is anxious to use big three- dollar words in an era when three dollars would have bought a lot more than it does today.
The film is based on the novel by Robert B. Parker (who generally writes about detectives Spenser and Jesse Stone). In addition to the other hats Harris wears in this production (and it usually is a broad-brimmed black hat on screen) Harris also sings a song over the end credits and proves to have nearly as good a singing voice as that other actor-director Clint Eastwood. The film has some good actors in smaller roles like Timothy Spall and Lance Henriksen. I am just not sure that Zellweger really feels like a woman of the period. Mortensen and Harris play well together like two men who fit each other like comfortable old shoes. Hitch might like Cole's woman, but he usually knows not to push the issue. Hitch is the better educated, but Cole is reading Emerson to try to catch up. Hitch knows that he has just book learning, but Cole knows the job of handling ruffians and gunfighters. Their byplay and the little details of life in the 1880s are arguably more important to the film than the inevitable big gunfight.
Most attempts to bring back the Western try to imitate the big brash westerns. This one is more like the minor B westerns of the 60's. I rate APPALOOSA a high +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 6/10. For those who stick through the credits, the film's dedication is to Ed "Big Red" Pennybacker. He had a small role as the train conductor but also was a popular newsman on KQUE in the Albuquerque area. He died in July.
Film Credits: http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0800308/
Mark R. Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Copyright 2008 Mark R. Leeper