A film review by Craig J. Koban
2008, R, 115 mins.
2008, R, 115 mins.
Virgil: Ed Harris / Everett: Viggo Mortensen / Allison: Renee
Zellweger / Randall: Jeremy Irons / Phil: Timothy Spall / Ring:
Ed Harris has a mug that was simply born to be in a western: He has that withered and textured face, piercing eyes, stoic, penetrating, and grizzled stare, and a potent and fierce magnetism. And he can be as intense as hell. Man...can he ever.
an actor, he has emerged as one of our most
dependable and versatile. As
a director, he more than proved himself with his rookie effort, 2000’s
multiple Oscar nominated POLLOCK, which focused on the life and times of
the emotionally tortured abstract expressionist painter. Harris
showed in that film that he could tackle complex themes and challenging
characters with flair and integrity.
Regrettably, it’s those last two mentioned characteristics that
his new western, APPALOOSA, wholeheartedly lacks.
This film is one in a
very disturbingly short list of recent screen westerns, but considering
Harris’ obvious talents and pedigree on board, APPALOOSA pales in
comparison. It lacks the
sumptuous and beautiful panoramic vistas and overall sheen of Kevin
Costner’s OPEN RANGE from 2003 and the hallucinogenic details and
stunning verisimilitude of 2006’s THE
PROPOSITION (arguably the finest western since 1992’s UNFORGIVEN).
The very last western to be released, James Mangold’s remake of 3:10
TO YUMA, was weak on character motivation and definition, but at
least the film brought flash and kinetic flare to its action sequences.
– based on the 2005 novel of the same name by crime writer Robert B.
Parker and not related in any way to Marlon Brando’s THE APPALOOSA –
is the most decidedly low key in approach when directly scrutinized
alongside the three previously mentioned films. Under certain circumstances, this approach could be a wise
one. Lamentably, though,
Harris’ presence and performance in the film is fairly undermined by his
flat, flavorless, and listless direction, not to mention by its
slumberingly slow and prosaic screenplay (co-authored by Harris) and a
genuine lack of visual interest in the film.
Visual interest should be the last thing that is wrong with any
good western, and it is a trait that they surely need to excel at to be
successful. The genre is and
has always been one of the most daringly evocative, but if one can’t
even drum up humble visual panache to the proceedings, then what’s the
point? Harris certainly fits
into his main character in APPALOOSA like a glove, but he seems a bit lost in
filming this western; oddly enough, he’s a bit out of his element here.
On basic levels, the
film strives to be stridently character driven first and focuses on
violence, bloodshed, and gun-slinging second.
Harris’ vision of a late 1800’s New Mexico has some little
details right, but his ultimate m.o. is to construct this western like a
classic example of the genre while incorporating modernistic elements of a
crime thriller. In some
ways, Harris only gets part of this right, as APPALOOSA never really
pushes the envelope to even discretely transcend the genre, like so many
other of the great westerns have done.
If anything, HARRIS goes largely for traditional and safer choices,
which makes APPALOOSA feel more trivial and routine as an experience.
The film’s title
refers to one of those obligatory Old West towns that Harris shoots like
just about every standard; run-of-the-mill Old West town we’ve seen
countless times before. It’s
1882 and Appaloosa is, you guessed it, having its law and order scale
tipped in the favor of lawlessness. This
makes it simpler for slimy and powerful criminals to stake a claim
in the town and write their own rules.
One mighty outlaw is Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons, sneeringly evil
at every turn here) whose gang of men engages in all forms of debauchery
in the town at every given moment. In
the beginning of the film Bragg kills three lawmen that wish to take him
in, and his matter-of-fact manner of shooting these men firmly establishes
him as a cold and merciless villain.
Well, town officials
from Appaloosa have seen enough and are fed up.
They decide that the only way to bring law and order back to their
tiny New Mexican town is by hiring a new marshal and deputy (or…off the
record…hired killers to stop Bragg once and for all).
The new marshall comes in the form of a renowned gunman named
Virgil Cole (Ed Harris, rock steady), who has an indiscernible level of
calm and focus when dealing with all forms of scum aiming their pistols at
him at point blank range. Along for the ride is his anointed deputy, Everett Hitch (Viggo
Mortensen), a fairly soft spoken and well read lawman that is calm and
collected on the outside, but inside lurks a cagey and cunning killer of
crooks with a shotgun. Part
of the interest of APPALOOSA is seeing the easy-going chemistry between
the two characters, not to mention how they compliment one another.
Cole is the boss, to be sure, but he’s not as swift and literate
as his deputy, and Hitch understands this and is wise to back Cole up
both in conversational circles and in battle.
Needless to say,
things do not begin rosy for Cole and Hitch, especially when they kill
(but not without ample warning) three of Bragg’s degenerates at a local
saloon. This is a crucial
moment for the pair, seeing as it sends a swift message to all that they
will not put up with anyone’s b.s. for long. Bragg does initially meet with Cole and tries to
enlighten the lawman that he should be given free reign to do as he
pleases in the town, which predictably does not impress Cole. This brings them into a number of direct confrontations with
Bragg himself and – through a series of events – actually leads to the
duo successfully arresting the outlaw and seeing him off to trial.
The trial, alas, does not go smoothly.
All of this gets
further complicated by the arrival of a woman in town (all macho
fisticuffs and confrontations in westerns are often hindered by a female
presence) in the form of Allie French (Renee Zellweger) who is quick to
point out that she is not a whore, but simply a recent widow.
She is not without looks, or talent for that matter, as she is
gifted playing the piano and organ. Through her initial queries about lodgings in the town she
hooks up with Cole, and the marshal soon finds himself falling for the
sassy lass. As Cole and
French grown closer, this puts strains not only on his efforts to bring
Bragg to justice, but it also has disconcerting effects on his friendship
with Hitch itself.
To be fair, there is
much to admire in APPALOOSA. Firstly,
and most notably, there is a trio of good performances by Harris,
Mortensen, and Irons respectively. Harris
himself is so fine at bringing a razor sharp conviction and nicely
introverted strength and tenacity to his role and Mortensen is also very
effective as his fellow lawman that often acts as Cole’s moral compass.
Jeremy Irons also shines playing sniveling and contemptuously evil
cretins with minimal effort, and his work as Bragg is no exception.
If anything, Harris shows that he is an actor’s-director in the
However, this is
where the accolades stop, because Harris seems to get lost in the
underlining bulk of the film. The screenplay for APPALOOSA lacks decent forward momentum
(it takes forever to get the gears of the plot moving) and interest in its
characters; at nearly two hours, the film undesirably feels more like
three. The ending of the film
also seems like a rushed hatchet job, like scenes were excised out on the
cutting room floor. There are
many individual moments that start promising, then quickly cut hastily to
the next scene, spoiling any amount of build up they were trying to create.
The film’s largely episodic feel gets tiresome and – by the
time the film cuts to its end credits – you never gain any semblance
that a memorable or substantial story has been told.
There are also other
glaring problems with this enterprise.
First, Zellweger seems all wrong for this part and film, as she
plays Allie French too bubbly and cute to take the later tonal shift of
the character in the film seriously. Also, her three-way troublesome relationship between herself,
Cole, and eventually Hitch has the predictability of a daytime soap opera,
and is handled and dealt with in an equally limited fashion.
Watching the film I kept seeing an actress with a bit more bite and
nerve, one that could play both adorability with wounded vulnerability and a disquieting sensitivity (like..say…a Zoey Deschanel).