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Appaloosa (2008) Director Ed Harris 27 September 2008

Posted by jordanfarley in Uncategorized.
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Westerns are becoming increasingly uncommon on the cinema screen, the last coming to my mind being the excellent remake of 3.10 to Yuma (a rare case of a remake which improves upon the original), but this week sees the release of Ed Harris’ Sopohmore directorial effort Appaloosa, an adaptation of the Robert B. Parker novel of the same name made in 2005.
The film also stars Ed Harris as Virgil Cole who, along with his partner Everett Hitch (Vigo Mortensen), is hired to police the town of Appaloosa after the sheriff is killed by ruthless rancher Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons). Cole and Hitch have made a living out of being law enforcers, travelling from town to town and dispensing their services where they are needed, but as a result there is a sense in the film that our heroes are never really in any danger, especially as any of the pair’s past exploits are never fully revealed to us.
Bringing Bragg to justice is the main thrust of the plot but there is also a secondary strand which threatens to turn the film into a romance at points with the introduction of Renee Zelwegger’s character Allison French. Zelwegger is an actress I have a love-hate relationship with. I can tolerate her in comedies where her huge cheeks are not really a distraction to the madness going on around (see Nurse Betty for perhaps her best performance), but I cannot stand her when she is playing serious, and especially when she is playing period (see also Cold Mountain). In Appaloosa she plays Cole’s love interest who hops in and out of the plot seemingly at random for the first hour or so, before being roped into the proceedings in the second half to allow the drama to continue when the action moves out of the town. The character is almost completely redundant as anything but a device to propel the action forward and it’s unbelievable that Cole would want to stay with her after her actions in this film anyway.
Saying that despite my dislike for Zellwegger’s performance, as with most films directed by actors, this really is an actor’s film. Ed Harris excels in playing the lawman who is not the flawless hero seen in so many westerns past. Cole has a wicked temper, is not particularly ‘word smart’ (he is often unable to think of the word he needs relying on Hitch to think of it for him) and is at the whim of a woman who clearly does not deserve him. Saying that however Harris is not the most versatile actor on the planet and (like Samuel L. Jackson) he mostly plays different versions of himself onscreen, but in Cole he has found a character which suits him perfectly.
Mortensen is arguably one of the best actors working in Hollywood today, unlike Harris he manages to transform himself with every role he plays (in particular see his collaborations with David Cronenberg A History of Violence and Eastern Promises) delivering something unexpected every time. In Appaloosa he plays a quiet gun man, the Doc Holiday to Cole’s Wyatt Earp, but without the wisecracks. Mortensen is an engaging screen presence and his short utterances are more than enough to convey anything which isn’t immediately apparent on his face. And what a face, photoshop a picture of him a little to date it and you could easily convince an expert he was from the period, what a ‘tache! Also excellent is Irons who, despite a slightly dodgy American accent, manages to create a character the audience can truly revile without turning him into a complete caricature. Special mention also has to go to Lance Henriksen who has been largely absent from a mainstream release since Alien versus Predator in 2004, but here shows a sparkling return to form as a gun for hire who becomes the main threat for Cole in the second half of the film.
The plot is frankly nothing special, the performances are what elevate the film and to Harris’ credit the film is also beautifully shot showing a great deal of imagination in the way that he and cinematographer Dean Semler have captured a landscape seen an uncountable amount of times on film before. Harris also proves quite experimental in some of the choices he makes with the camera angles, but perhaps that is because for the majority of the film it is largely direction by numbers. The score unfortunately is somewhat underwhelming particularly compared to Marco Beltrami’s sterling work on 3.10 to Yuma.
When Harris is focusing on the film as a Western Appaloosa is at its best, but unfortunately the romantic side plot seems to rear its head more often than one would like. It is admirable that Harris tried to create a character driven western but it is a shame that he could not deliver on the promise of his character’s expertise with firearms in the final shootout, which proves to be greatly underwhelming. For a better example of a character driven western which delivers on the action as well I would recommend Open Range or the frequently mentioned 3.10 to Yuma over Appaloosa, but Harris’ film is worth a watch, if not just to see Mortensen back on the big screen where he belongs.

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