They don't seem to make western movies much anymore. I'm not sure why, and to be honest I don't really miss them all that much. That's not to say there weren't some redeeming features in westerns. Nothing I've seen to this day can match the panoramic camera work that permeated the best of John Ford's movies in their ability to capture the Big Sky of the desert and the western plains. Or on occasion you'd get a movie which featured two actors whose chemistry together on the screen made the movie a delight to watch no matter how lame the overall story line might have been. It takes a couple of special actors to pull that off, and aside from the occasional comedy pairings, I haven't seen any in recent memory that have done so successfully.
That is until I downloaded the DivX version of Appaloosa, written, directed, and co-starring Ed Harris. He and Viggo Mortensen play a pair of hired guns who work on the right side of the law. Harris' character, Virgil Cole, acts as marshal and Mortensen's Everett Hatch is his deputy. Over the years the two have been bringing law and order to towns willing to pay their price and accept their authority, and the town of Appaloosa is the latest in need of their special skills. Their last marshal was gunned down by local rancher Randell Braggs (Jeremy Irons) and since then he and his men have been acting like they own the town — stealing, beating, and even murdering with impunity.
After Cole and Everett dispatch three of Braggs' men in a gun fight the movie appears to be heading down the well-worn western path of a series of minor gun fights leading up to an O.K. Corral type of shoot-out as the grand finale. However Harris throws a couple of twists into the plot, the bane of all buddies, the woman with the potential to come between them, and a witness willing to testify that he saw Randell Braggs shoot the former marshal and his deputies. The widow Allison French (Renee Zellweger) shows up one day on the train and immediately latches onto Cole. Before he knows it Cole finds himself looking at curtain samples for the parlour that Allison is planning for their new house. Never having been involved with a woman for more then a night, and doing nothing more with them than what they were there to do, he's a little at a loss as to what's expected of him.
It's a different story when one of Braggs' men comes forward and claims to be willing to testify that he saw his boss commit murder. Cole knows exactly what to do in those circumstances. But bringing someone to trial and getting them sentenced is a far cry from having that sentence carried out, and Braggs knows Cole's weak spot. He hires two gunmen to kidnap Allison and they force Cole and Everett to turn Braggs over if they don't want her brains blown away. Unfortunately the widow French has a roving eye; she'd already made a play for Everett by then, and when our boys catch up with the bad guys they find her frolicking naked in the water with one of Braggs' hired guns.
As co-writer and director, Ed Harris has created an interesting dynamic between the three main characters of Cole, Everett, and Allison French. Instead of having the "girl" come between the men, Allison's character helps clarify the strength of the bond between the two men. With both Harris and Mortensen giving new meaning to the word understatement when it comes to their performances, it's only through subtle indications from both of them over the course of the movie that we come to understand the depth of their relationship. Needless to say over the years they have developed an instinctual understanding of how each of them are going to react under a given set of circumstances, and that is depicted beautifully, but there's more to it than even that.
There's the note that each man is able to strike with the intensity of a gaze or the quirking of an eyebrow while talking that communicates a level of understanding of the other person's character that can't be expressed in words. The slump of Mortensen's shoulders when his character recognizes what the stubborn set of his buddy's chin means, quickly followed by him squaring them in acceptance of shouldering his share of whatever will ensue says more about the level of trust the two men have for each other than any speech. In those two movements you not only see Everett's loyalty to Cole, but the knowledge that Cole would do the same for him without question.
While Mortensen and Harris are undoubtedly the stars, both Zellweger and Irons do fine jobs with their characters. Zellweger in particular manages the difficult task of ensuring that we don't hate her character, which would be easy to do. Every so often she allows Allison's genuine fear of being alone to slip through the various masks she wears in her efforts to snare the man who will bring her the most security. A single woman in post-Civil War America out west has very few options for survival, especially if she's trying to maintain the illusion of civility.
Irons doesn't get to play villains often enough in my opinion, because he does such a wonderful job. His Braggs is a cultured and educated man who is personal friends with the President of the United States. Yet beneath that veneer lies a vicious killer who strikes with the speed of a snake. It would have been easy for Irons to overplay this role, but instead of chewing the scenery he only occasionally allows his character to explode. There is something very frightening about how he allows Braggs 'suave exterior to crack momentarily and allow the monster within loose, only to seal it over again immediately.
Appaloosa is one of those rare movies that manages to transcend its genre and the cliches normally associated with it through the strength of its script and the quality of the performances from the actors involved. This movie will appeal to all those who appreciate fine acting and a well told story whether you're a fan of westerns or not. The cowboy may ride off into the sunset at the end of this movie, but it's the how and the why he does so that makes it worth watching.