Appaloosa (2008), co-written, co-produced and directed by Ed Harris, and starring Harris alongside Viggo Mortensen, Jeremy Irons and Renee Zellweger, is a well-made old-fashioned ‘Law & order’ Western that adds just enough nuances to the genre archetypes to make it a little different.
“A town without laws. Two Men with their own, the law you live by is the law you die by”
This is the tagline for Ed Harris’ 2008 film “Appaloosa”; and it’s more than obvious from this tagline that the film is a straightforward western tale with very little revisionism. A film about clear-cut heroes who live by their codes, all-black villains, town in distress and fallen women with heart of gold. Like all good traditional Westerns, “Appaloosa” provides a sense of immense space, the desire of wandering loners to be part of civilization, the bad men resisting that encroachment and the sense of an ongoing mythic conflict in which tough, hard-bitten men do what they do best. It has gunfights, evil ranchers, Apaches, old steam trains and lots of horseback action in wide open plains and dense forests of the wild west. The film is the second directorial venture of actor Ed Harris after his much acclaimed directorial debut “Pollock (2000)” – in which he played the great painter Jackson Pollock; Harris was nominated for a best actor Oscar for his performance in that film. In “Appaloosa,” Harris plays an artist of a different kind: he’s Virgil Cole, a gunslinger and peacekeeper in 1880s New Mexico, and whose artistry with guns is no less virtuosic than Pollock’s with paintbrushes and canvasses. Harris also co-wrote the film’s script with Robert Knott and it’s based on the 2005 bestseller written by Robert B. Parker. This movie is a very faithful rendering of the book. Harris’ adaptation does not get in the way of the storytelling, rather, he gives it a strong visualization. As in the novel, the story is told through the eyes of Cole’s partner and best buddy, Everett Hitch, played here by Viggo Mortenson. Harris and Mortensen had earlier worked together in David Cronenberg’s “History of Violence (2005)” and had been friends since then. Mortensen made this film as much out of friendship as for the material, and it’s obvious that their real-life comradery helped them immensely in detailing the complex relationship between Cole and Hitch.
When the film opens – in 1882, in the sleepy, dusty town of Appaloosa in New Mexico- Cole and Hitch have been riding together for more than a decade- they go from from town to town, working as hired peacekeepers in the lawless western towns. Hitch used to be a soldier, and then an Indian fighter, but after rescuing Cole in a skirmish with some mountain bandits, he turned in his commission and joined Cole as his deputy. They’re now in Appaloosa because they have been hired by the town fathers to bring law and order to the land which is under threat from powerful rancher Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons). We have already seen how ruthless Bragg is in the film’s opening scene: the town Marshall and two deputies who went to arrest two of Bragg’s men were ruthlessly shot dead by Bragg. The townsfolk has decided that enough enough and gives new Marshall Cole total freedom to do whatever he wants and enact any law he wishes to take down Bragg. Cole and his deputy, Hitch, quickly gets to work and immediately confronts four of Bragg’s thugs creating trouble in a saloon. The thugs refuses to be arrested, and in the ensuing gunfight, three of them are killed. Hitch’s chosen weapon of mayhem is a terribly long Eight-gauge shotgun, which never leaves his side, while Cole is inseparable from his Colt Single Action Army .45. This more than illustrates the contrast between Hitch and Cole- the former is ostentatious and stylish, which is also obvious from the ‘spade-like’ goatee that covers his face, while the ‘clean-shaven’ Cole is a no -nonsense guy, who’s not given to any frills and likes to get the job done quickly. And i guess he’s also a bit of a maverick as he refuse to have any facial hair at a time when men were obsessive about their beards and whiskers. There’s a nice bit of detailing that Harris does with his Colt that’s not usually seen in a Western: Instead of holstering his gun after firing it, Cole dumps out the empty shells (using the ejector rod, which I’m sure not many actors know even exists) and reloads it before putting it away. These are just a few of the ‘modern’ touches that Harris, as an actor & filmmaker, gives the film that makes it standout as a sort of an old-new Western.
Soon, Bragg comes calling, and has a tense meeting with Cole, which only manages to intensify their animosity. But the big conformation between Bragg and Cole will have to wait, as the story now takes a detour into a prickly romantic subplot with the introduction of Allison ‘Allie’ French (Renee Zellweger). Allie is a charming young widow who is newly arrived in town with just a dollar in her purse. Hitch pursues her with the intentions of a romance, but she seems to be interested in both Hitch and Cole; and once Hitch realizes that Cole is also interested in Allie, he backs off and let the two have a romance. Instead, Hitch finds comfort in the arms of town whore, Katie (Ariadna Gil). Meanwhile, Cole and Allie becomes so close that they decide to move in together and they start building a house. Allie’s continued presence in Cole’s life threatens to tear apart his comradeship with Hitch But it’s soon revealed that Allie is an insecure, manipulative and promiscuous woman- who’s always looking to ensnare the most powerful man in town who can best take care of her. Once she had her fill of Cole, she turns to seducing Hitch, but Hitch refuses her advances out of loyalty to Cole. Cole knows perfectly what kind of woman Allie is – he describes her as: ” She speaks well, she dresses fine, she’s good-looking, she can play the piano, she cooks good, she’s very clean, chews her food nice; but it appears she’ll fuck anything ain’t gelded“- but he’s fallen hard for her and tries his best to make a honest woman out of her, but unknown to Cole and Hitch, Allie’s amorality is about to compromise even their sacrosanct profession. Now to get back to the main storyline: one of Bragg’s men volunteers to testify against Bragg in the murders of the former Marshal and deputies. So Hitch and Cole goes out to Bragg’s ranch, arrest him and lock him up until the trial. A “Rio Bravo” kind of situation develops when Bragg’s men attempts to ambush the jail to free Bragg, while Cole and Hitch tactfully fend them off.
At the end of the trial, the judge finds Bragg guilty and sentences him to death. Cole, Hitch and several deputies transport Bragg via train to the prison where he was to be hanged but when they stop for refueling over a bridge, hired guns Ring Shelton (Lance Henriksen) and Mackie Shelton (Adam Nelson), old acquaintances of Cole, appear with Allie at gunpoint, forcing Cole to release Bragg to them. Bragg takes off with the outlaws with Allie in tow. Cole and Hitch give pursuit, and when they finally manage to catch up with Bragg and his gang, they’re shocked to find Allie and Ring Shelton frolicking naked together in a stream. It seems that after Hitch turned down her advances, Allie had taken up with the Ring, and perhaps even Bragg. While Cole and Hitch discuss their future course of action, Bragg’s men are attacked by Chiricahua Apaches, who steal their guns, supplies and even Allie. Now Cole and Hitch spring into action and forces the Apaches away. Bragg is recaptured and handed over to the sheriff of Beauville; but unbeknownst to Cole, the sheriff is a cousin of the Shelton brothers. Knowing that Cole is determined to bring Bragg to the gallows, the Sheltons and the sheriff free Bragg and engage Cole and Hitch in a gunfight. Cole and Hitch are wounded but manage to kill Ring, Mackie and the sheriff. Bragg escapes on horseback and Cole and Hitch return to Appaloosa with Allie. Some time pass, and Bragg, who was given a full pardon by president Chester Arthur, returns to Appaloosa as a born again good citizen. He makes friendly overtures to Cole and Hitch, and also ingratiates himself to the fickle townsfolk, who all seem to welcome him back to their fold. Cole, who was badly injured in the shootout, now walks with a limp and he still loves the fickle Allie, enough to start afresh with her. But Hitch soon finds out that Bragg is still the old braggart rascal and he’s having an affair with Allie. Realizing that Cole’s days as a gunslinger are over- which means that their partnership is coming to an end, and for Cole and Allie to have a peaceful married life Bragg has to be eliminated, Hitch decides to draw Bragg out for a gun duel. Hitch resigns as deputy and challenges Bragg to a gunfight in the streets. Cole tries to intervene, but Hitch insists on proceeding with it. In the ensuing gunfight, Hitch kills Bragg, and then bidding farewell to Cole, rides off into the sunset.
“Appaloosa” is a solidly made traditional Western. It’s classy, subtle and realistic; the last quality might restrict the film from becoming a top-tier Western, because Westerns are intended to be myth and folklore, not realistic; and the film does have certain attributes and some drawbacks that prevent it from becoming a truly great western- more on that later. But to dwell on the film’s positives: it has great production values, especially production design, costume design, locations and cinematography. The filmmakers have gone to great lengths to make sure everything looked realistic, and it shows. The sets in here are fantastic and so is the dialogue. For most of its running time, the droll wordplay makes it appear that the film is a comedy rather than a serious western. Anyway, just listening to the two main characters talk to each other in this film, alone, makes this worthy of a watch. The film is also one of those rare Westerns which was actually photographed in the locations in which the story is set. Usually, if a Western is set in Arizona or Montana, they would shoot it in Mexico, California or Canada. This New Mexico set story is actually shot in some of the major locations like Albuquerque and Santa Fe in New Mexico. The great Australian Cinematographer, Dean Semler, who won an Oscar fro his work on “Dances with Wolves”, shot this film on ‘film’ (eschewing digital photography which was becoming the norm) and widescreen. Semler gives the film a rich yet colorless, ghostly atmosphere, befitting the windy, dusty town; Though i wish he hadn’t desaturated the colors so much- the images appears almost monochromatic sometimes., and we expect a dash of color and lushness from our Westerns. No complaints about his exquisite widescreen framing though, whether it’s the interiors or exteriors it’s tops; reminded me a lot of John Ford’s Westerns. Harris is a director who does not go for innovative technique in directing his movies; his shot compositions are pretty simple and straightforward; except for a brief interlude involving a train stopping on top of a bridge, and riders appearing underneath, which is filled with odd camera angles and brisk editing, there’s hardly anything stylish about the filmmaking. He lets the film play out through its characters and their interactions.
“Appaloosa” is a Western drama as opposed to a Western actioner. There are plenty of gunfights, but they are over pretty quickly. There are no elaborate gunplay as in a Sam Peckinpah or John Sturges Western. Nor does it has an epic climactic showdown between heroes and villains as in Kevin Costner’s “Open Range“. The gunfight in the climax is rather clumsy and abrupt. It’s the central human drama that drives the movie forward. And hence, the film does not have the pace and vitality that one expect from a traditional Western; Harris tries to keep the pace of the film realistic to the time period- which is somber and serene for most part except for those abrupt bursts of violence. which means that the film tends to lag and loose momentum when the drama become tedious: apart from the romantic subplot in the film’s middle portion that takes up too much time and bogs down proceedings, the final act is also rather sluggish, messy and not fully realized. I guess this was a labor of love for Harris, and he felt a little too possessive about certain scenes. He should have excised some ten to fifteen minutes from the film, mostly in the middle. Also, After Bragg comes back as a good citizen in third act, the film has no where to go, as the heroes become stagnant. The entire section where Hitch slaps and insults Bragg to draw him into a gunfight feels very forced and inorganic. The final section is also about the painful dissolution of the strong brotherly bond between Hitch and Cole, but their separation does not hits us as hard as it should. The main reason for this ineffective denouement is due to Harris’ classy, cold and even droll treatment of the material: it is completely devoid of melodrama. This is part of Harris’ agenda in giving a modern touch to this traditional genre. This is not necessarily a bad thing- a lot of it works very well: the comradery between Hitch and Cole is established and driven by very subtle reactions and gestures, without any theatricality or big dialogue scenes- this is completely opposite of what we have seen in famous buddy-westerns like “Rio Bravo” or “El Dorado.” But Westerns require a certain amount of melodrama to work properly- all great Westerns, whether it’s “The Searchers” or ” Red River” are also great melodramas. Harris has a very good feel for the ‘Western’ genre, he understands it much more than anybody around, but unlike someone like Kevin Costner, or even Ron Howard who did a great job with “The Missing (2003)”, he’s too timid, or too modern and classy to fully embrace it in all its traditional glory. This makes the film not as much fun as it ought to be.
But as far his acting goes, there are no big complaints: Harris as well as Mortensen and Irons are superb in their respective roles; especially, Irons who gives the bad guy a certain amount of humor and sophistication. Harris and Mortensen work well together and they make us believe they’ve had a long history together- mostly through how one complements the other when they walk into a gunfight or how one watches over the other when either of them is in trouble. My only grouse about this casting is that both Harris and Mortensen are very similar type of actors; both of them are pure, intense method actors, and neither of them is a star. So we never get that star and actor dynamic in the mold of Costner and Duvall in “Open Range” or Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer in “Tombstone.” The film definitely misses the presence of a star; Westerns have been predominantly star-driven; these films need someone with that larger-than-life charisma, at home in that mythical setting. Though one cannot fault Harris for his noble intentions in trying to make a more realistic – rather than a mythical- traditional Western. This attempt at modern realism is mainly reflected in the characterization of Allie French: Allie is a very real and fascinating character: usually, the Westerns splits its woman characters into either nice, respectable frontier housewives or manipulative, promiscuous whores; Allie is both, and that’s why she baffles and challenges the traditional Western males embodied by Harris and Mortensen. So, even as the film tries to show the importance of the friendship between men keeping the peace in this tough frontier land, it also acknowledges the survival skills of the women who could never compete with the men physically but must try and make their own lives comfortable, or even just bearable, by any means possible. This brilliant conceit would have worked perfectly if Renee Zellweger was able to execute the role as it was intended. Alas! the way Zellweger portrays her, she comes across as coy and needy, but never manipulative or promiscuous. Zellweger is terribly miscast in the film; it needed someone like Diane Lane to pull off this multidimensional role. Lane was originally cast as Allie, but she had to pull out when the film got stuck due to financial problems.
The studio, Newline, which was backing the project got nervous about the commercial prospects of a Western in the middle of summer blockbusters, and decided to stall the project. There was a time in American film history when Western was the only genre with a minimum guarantee at the box office. You could make an A or B-Western of any quality and still end up making a decent profit. Those days are long past. Today, Western is considered a genre way past its sell-by date, and hence, getting financing for a Western is becoming more and more difficult. It was only due to Harris’ persistence, and thanks to the success of the HBO series “Deadwood” and the remake of “3:10 to Yuma” that finally got this film made. But “Appaloosa” wasn’t a box office success either. The film was made for a relatively low budget of $20 million (in the same year when “The Dark Knight” was made for $185 million) and it only grossed approximately the same amount as it cost to make it (as opposed to the billion dollar gross of “The Dark Knight”). So, it’s no surprise that we haven’t seen many big-screen Westerns in its wake. But nonetheless, a big shout-out to Harris, for his courage, convictions and talent in making this film. He, along with Kevin Costner, Robert Duvall, Tommy Lee Jones, Sam Elliott and Tom Selleck have kept the western genre alive. It’s interesting to note that for the last couple of decades or so it’s the actors (rather than the directors) who have ensured that Westerns remain a part of the American movie mainstream, no matter how difficult it has become to get them made.