In the early years of my film fandom I was drawn immediately to the visceral impact of horror films, the metallic sheen of science fiction, and a little to the bullet-riddled excess of action films. These genres were my gateway drug to cinema. And as that gateway drug made its way into my system, becoming my lifeblood, there were other genres that did not appeal to me as much.
Among those outsider genres were the costume drama and — you guessed it — westerns. I cannot explain why, they just didn't appeal to me as much. That disinterest was diminished by the likes of Unforgiven and Tombstone. Over the years, I have gotten more enjoyment out of westerns, but they are still far from my favorite genre. That brings me to Appaloosa, a western from the old school, and it is good — just not that good.
Ed Harris and Viggo Mortensen are Virgil Cole and Everet Hitch, respectively. They are a pair of gunmen who clean up the bad guys from small western towns. The pair have been doing this for a long time, over which they have forged a mighty strong friendship. The relationship between Virgil and Everet goes well beyond the "buddy movie" tag that could be attached to this film. These are men who know each other completely. They trust one another and know how to go about their unsavory business in as efficient a method as possible.
The duo have been contacted by the town of Appaloosa in an effort to free them from the clutches of a rancher named Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons) who seems to be bad just for the sake of being bad, and being good at it, I guess. The town is fed up and they want their town back and see our two-man cleanup crew as their best shot at regaining control of the town.
Virgil puts on the marshal badge and has Everet as his deputy. They lock the town down as they get closer to their goal. A trio of Bragg's men comes to town and promptly get themselves shot down. This leads to a showdown between Bragg, Virgil, and Everet.
In the midst of this drama a new player enters. Mrs. Allison French (Renee Zellweger) arrives in town, immediately catching the eye of Virgil. He steps into the picture, smitten with the widow, who we learn in short order is not a whore. Virgil is so taken with her that the two begin a relationship, leading to Virgil leaving his life of freedom and travel by building a home for the two of them to live in.
There is plenty of development on both plot fronts. We learn more about Mrs. French and her motives for what she does, nothing particularly bad, but her personality definitely has its quirks. We also follow Bragg through a big character shift that does not sit well with Everet.
Now, I am not going to dig deeper into the characters and their specific roles through the middle and down the stretch of the film, as that is what this film is about. It is also what makes this film such a frustrating experience to me. So much is offered up to like about Appaloosa that I almost feel bad about not liking it as much as I really want to. I just found so much of it to be dull. Very little of any real consequence happens, therefore I feel as if I, as a member of the audience, have been relegated to being on the outside looking in, never feeling completely involved.
What makes Appaloosa so frustrating is that there is so much to like. However, everything I like is tempered by a story that does not know where to focus. When we should be looking at Virgil and Allison we look at Bragg; when we should be looking at Bragg we look at Virgil and Allison. For all I know this is how it goes down in the Robert Parker novel, but it strikes me as unfocused. I wish that the screenplay was a bit tighter at blending everything together.
On the other hand, while I did feel the drag in the middle, there is a nice realistic build. The characters are not driven by the plot, rather everything happens to them. It is definitely a nice change of pace. I loved both Ed Harris and Viggo Mortensen, both of them "got it." The relationship their characters have and the chemistry the actors have is fantastic. Watching them do their thing is like watching an acting clinic. These two are the reason to see this movie.
Bottom line. For as middling as my reaction was, I find it hard not to give this a recommendation. This is a western from the old school. There is no modernistic take, no current cynicism to make it palatable for a modern audience. This is a western in the classic sense that has fantastic performances in the lead, and direction (from Ed Harris) that knows to hang back and let the actors do their thing. The screenplay may not be what I would like it to be , but this is still worth your time.