A movie like Appaloosa makes me wonder if I’ve seen too many movies. I truly wanted to love it. I have a special place in my heart for westerns. And I even had a good time, part of the time. But, sitting in my car after leaving the theater, I was overcome by the old nagging question: “Why did they make that movie?”
I won’t spend many column inches describing the plot. Just imagine Shane meets My Darling Clementine rendered with huge, pretty – but mostly wasted – widescreen compositions. (Where’s Sergio Leone when you need him?) Toss in enough gun-blasted bodies and strategically placed “F-bombs” (What are “F-bombs” doing in a western?) to guarantee an R rating and you have Appaloosa pegged.
Appaloosa is characteristic of westerns from what genre theorists call the mannerist phase. That is, the phase in the genre’s evolution where everything has been boiled down to the basic elements which are then blown up to epic proportions. Or, in other words, the genre, suffering from malnutrition, has begun feeding on itself. It has become ripe for parody (Blazing Saddles) or revisionism (such as Clint Eastwood’s High Plains Drifter with the lone rider not a savior, but the Devil).
Thus, we get an opening scene of cold-blooded murder, short and sweet, almost abstract. We get a face-off at a river crossing. A train stops to take on water in a perfect location for an ambush. We get the fair woman from the city trying to get the lawman to settle and the dark whore from the saloon trying to keep him wild – and no other women of consequence anywhere in sight. When two men have a showdown, it’s a long stare-down and then BANG! And when guns are fired, they don’t just fire, they explode like cannons. The film is all genre clichés, nothing else.
The problem faced by westerns now – and probably why so few are still made – is keeping things fresh when over-familiarity has audiences thinking far ahead of the game. They know gunmen are hiding around the corner and perched on the inn balcony. They know that if a sheriff falls in love, he’ll be sorry later when a gun is pointed at her head – set the villain free or blow her a kiss goodbye.
Eastwood had the right idea with High Plains Drifter. He played around with the roles of hero and villain and concocted an anti-heroic potion where good and evil mingle like two mismatched spices. It wasn’t a tasty potion, but its bitterness was true to its times. With McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Robert Altman considered the rules and conventions of the genre disposable and envisioned a Wild West town as a critique of capitalism shot through an opium haze.
Appaloosa doesn’t offer the freshness essential for a western today. It feels perfunctory with the only twist being that two “lone gunmen” ride into town – the repartee between Ed Harris and Viggo Mortensen is often quite funny – instead of one. Although the way the fair woman – an unbearable Renée Zellweger – pits the two men (and every other man within arm's length of her corset) against each other is the film’s admittedly interesting attempt at re-invigorating a stereotype. She aims to settle a man and only the manliest will do. (Sort of the anti-High Noon you might say.)
Unfortunately, two lawmen plus two women – one light, one dark – equaled spotting the limp ending far too soon. No, I haven’t seen too many movies. I’ve just seen enough really good westerns to spot a poser the moment it pulls into the station.