Written PostOnce Upon a Time in Appaloosa

Once Upon a Time in Appaloosa

I am not very well-versed in Westerns, but I do know that I usually enjoy them when I see them.  When I heard that Ed Harris was directing the new Western, Appaloosa (only his second time directing, the first being the phenomenal Pollock), I was interested.  The terrific cast — Harris himself, along with Viggo Mortensen, Jeremy Irons, Renee Zellweger, and Lance Henriksen — sealed the deal.

Virgil Cole (Harris) and Everett Hitch (Mortensen) are lawmen-for-hire who come to the town of Appaloosa to help rid the townspeople of a troublesome rancher named Randall Bragg (Irons).  Through fear and intimidation, and the occasional murder, Randall and his men have had the run of the town, pretty much able to do whatever they please.  But the townspeople have finally had enough, so they hire Cole and Hitch.  The two men have cleaned up plenty of frontier towns before, but this time a woman (Zellweger) is going to make things a lot more complicated. 

If that sounds like a fairly typical plot for a Western… well, it is.  Appaloosa is a rather traditional tale.  The filmmakers aren’t out to re-invent the Western — they’re just out to tell as good a Western as they can.

And for the most part they succeed.  The strength of this movie is the actors.  It is great fun watching Harris, Mortensen, Irons, and the rest of them go at it.  All are such powerful, charismatic figures — watching them bounce off one another is a great pleasure.  

I don’t know that I’ve ever seen Ed Harris give a bad performance.  Last week I re-watched Glengarry Glenn Ross for the umpteenth time, and his farewell rant towards the end of the film (“What is this, courtesy class?”) is something I can watch over and over again.  Harris is the lead of the film here, in many ways the “hero.”  But he’s not afraid to show the cracks at the edges of his character.  Virgil Cole is a man who can fall into a rage when angered, who is not very learned, and who can make some bad decisions when a pretty lady is involved.  But Harris also imbues Cole with a basic decency as well as an abundance of inherent charm.  This is a man it’s hard not to root for (even when the film gives us some reasons why maybe we shouldn’t).

I have really been thrilled, over the past few years, to watch Viggo Mortensen in the various roles he has taken on post Lord of the Rings.  He was so spectacular as Aragorn that I could have seen him get trapped in that role.  But in films like Eastern Promises and this one, he has created really wonderful characters, each very different than that of Aragorn.  Mortensen has a quietude, and a gentleness, that is quite powerful to watch — particularly when playing a man who is, despite all that, a man whose life revolves around violence.  He’s dangerous, and tremendously engaging.

I’ve been a fan of Lance Henriksen ever since I first saw Aliens at probably too-young an age.  He’s an actor I always wish was in more films, as I find him to be consistently excellent (even in lesser roles).  He’s got a nice part here as one of a pair of gun-for-hire brothers hired by Bragg.  There’s a lot of life behind his craggy face, and like Mortensen there’s a dangerous sense that you never quite know what this man is going to do next.

The weakness, unfortunately, is Zellweger.  Its possible that the script is more at fault than the actress… but either way, she’s a rather unlikable character in the film, and that hurts the story.  Because for the audience to really be invested in the events of the second half of the film, I think we need to care a lot more about her character.  Now, I am not complaining that she is a flawed character.  Zellwegger’s Allison French is a woman who, basically, is always trying to be with the man who is “top dog” wherever she finds herself.  Now, that could be an interesting character trait.  As I wrote above, it is the flaws in Ed Harris’ Virgil Cole that make his character so interesting.  French’s weaknesses could be a compelling way to add some depth to the “damsel” role in the film… and that could set up some interesting sparks between her and the various strong male characters around her.  But, again, for any of that to occur I think the audience needs to care more about her, so that we’re saddened when she makes some of the choices that she makes in the second half of the movie.  Instead, I just found her to be distasteful, and sort of silly when compared to all the rest of the men who (except for Jeremy Irons’ Bragg) seem so honorable (even Lance Henriksen’s hit-man Ring Shelton, who is at odds with our heroes for most of the movie).

So is this a ground-breaking, monumental film?  It is not.  It is, however, a very entertaining story, populated by a number of very talented actors.  There’s nothing envelope-pushing here, but you know, sometimes a small tale well-told is enough.

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