Appaloosa

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3.5-star, nonrevisionist western

Jun 2, 2009 (Updated Jun 2, 2009)
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Pros:actors (Harris, Mortensen, Irons), period details and cinematography

Cons:Zellweger('s role and performance), a bit slow, including full-screen version

The Bottom Line: coulda/shoulda been better


Plot Details: This opinion reveals minor details about the movie's plot.

Q: Which of the following performes does not belong in a western?
Ed Harris, Jeremy Irons, Viggo Mortensen, or Renée Zellwegger

Had I been asked in advance of seeing the western, "Appaloosa"  (2008) directed (cowritten, and coproduced) by Ed Harris, I'd have answered Irons. Mortensen had starred in another western, "Hidalgo," and Harris in the quasi-western "Walker." as well as a tv adaptation of Riders of the Purple Sage. Renée Zellweger won an Oscar in a movie set earlier in the 19th century than "Appaloosa," "Cold Mountain," but in the quiz I'm administering, the correct answer is Renée Zellweger. The part of the widow Allison French as she plays it is closer to her Oscar-nominated role in "Chicago" than to anything in "Cold Mountain."

And Irons is playing the supercilious, alien villain (think Jason Robards in "Once Upon a Time in West") who rents gunmen. The particular one played by Irons, Randall Bragg, has connections with the corrupt Republican president of the Republic, Chester Arthur, from their days in US Customs in New York City. There are conflicting rumors about how Bragg came into money, but he definitely has it and considers himself above the law (think Donald Rumsfeld?).

It is impossible for me not to think of the Earp brothers with a professional town-tamer named Virgil and a monosyllable of a last name (Cole) coming in and demanding dictatorial powers. Instead of being accompanied by a brother, he is accompanied by Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen) who seems quite content to be Cole's backup (with an eight-gauge shotgun that weighed eleven pounds). The audience does not know how or where Everett learned the vocabulary he aids Virgil with (Virgil is struggling through a volume of Emerson essays, too), but he waits to be asked.

And Everett is content to let the widow who comes to town, who seems very 20th-century to me), Mrs. French take up with Virgil. This is eased by the availability of a Mexicana, played by Ariadna Gil.

Difficult as it is to believe that Harris (and Mortensen) made so conventional a western — one closer to "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" than to "The Wild Bunch," closer to "Rio Bravo" than to "The Searchers," closer to "Lonesome Dove" than to "3:10 to Yuma" (either version). While giving himself and the other actors time to develop their characters, Harris, the director, was insufficiently concerned about pace. At the risk of repeating myself repeating myself, when actors direct (especially when they are on both sides of the camera), the need to hire and empower strong editors. Maybe Orson Welles did this with Robert Wise, but examples of performers who haven't include Jay Chou, Robert Duvall, and Clint Eastwood.

There is a genre story (or two, or four), but the characters are more interesting than the plot, although that was true for "The Searchers" and "The Wild Bunch" as well as for "Rio Bravo" and "Butch & Sundance." Harris tries too hard to make Mrs. French more than a caricature of fickleness, pomposity, and neediness (attributes that have multiplicative rather than additive a combination). And the problems of  Zellweger's performance multiply the bad judgments in writing her part and somewhat undercut the ending (before the anticlimactic and entirely gratuitous voice-over about riding into the sunset while showing the narrator riding north of the sunset!).

I don't think that Harris and Zellwegger have much chemistry. The team of Harris and Mortensen have more (they were worthy opponents in "A History of Violence" and convincing partners as "peacekeepers" imposing law in the heretofore "wild west", whose partnership is disrupted by Virgil's falling for a very untrustworthy woman. Has Virgil never met someone pretending to be a "lady" before? Apparently not. But the speed and completeness of his fall are difficult to credit, all the more so because Zellwegger is so transparent a hypocrite... (A damsel often was in danger in the Budd Boetticher westerns, but Randolph Scott never fell hard for them in the present time of the movies...)

I'm surprised that some epinionators consider "Appaloosa" particularly violent. Maybe I've been watching too many Hong Kong police/gangster movies (and Korean family or love stories...), but I came of age as an admirer on its initial release of "The Wild Bunch" and "Once Upon a Time in the West" (i.e., 1968). Not only are the eruptions of violence over very quickly in "Appaloosa," that is even commented on (Virgil says that they and their opponents are good at what they do).

And so many westerns are about the "end of an era," the era of "the wild west," (e.g., "The Wild Bunch," "Once Upon a Time in the West," "The Gunfighter", "Geronimo," or even "Red River") that I'm surprised that anyone would find this western particularly melancholc. (It's less melancholic than the first four movies I just mentioned, or Budd Boetticher or Anthony Mann or other Sam Peckinpah ones.)

Much room on the disc is wasted by including he disc full frame versions of the movie that was shot on film as wide screen. Having lavished so much careful attention on period details, it is a shame that the video is not sharper. There are some interesting details about set and costume and weaponry in supplements, and celebration of Australian cinematographer Dean Semler (Dances with Wolves, Young Guns, Apocalypto), along with half a dozen deleted scenes and an uninspired commentary (Harris and cowriter Robert Knott ) is available.

Oddly, I have seen two westerns within a 24-hour span that were shot northeast of where they purportedly take place: "Geronimo" around Moab, Utah; "Appaloosa" around Santa Fe, NM (instead of in the copper belt).

©2009, Stephen O. Murray


Recommend this product? Yes


Viewing Format: DVD

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