Maybe I am in a forgiving mood, maybe there was something about it that tapped into some primal sense of masculinity inside of me, clearly I don’t have the ability to look too closely at my own motivations today, who knows, but Ed Harris’ new film, Appaloosa is a messy yet utterly charming new Western that completely made my day. The story of a couple of quick draws hired to protect a small town from a murderous, out of control rancher named Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons), Harris’ film is the first post-Bush Western, a darkly comic tale of values and democracy in crisis, where the law of the land is subverted in the name of safety. Harris plays Virgil Cole, a keeper of the peace with a reputation for doing whatever it takes to get the job done. With the help of his partner Everett Hitch (a perfect, dryly comic Viggo Mortensen), Cole is hired to protect the small town of Appaloosa by any means necessary, literally; After being offered the position of Appaloosa’s town Marshall, Cole demands that the town’s leaders sign a contract allowing him to make any law he sees fit in the quest to restore public safety. Eager to save their own asses, they happily comply and Cole and Hitch begin their work outside the rule of law.
In a sense, this is the birth of our current political environment; Cole’s tactics involve rendition (kidnapping his intended target), a generous helping of big words that are never properly articulated (sound familiar?) and a lawless dedication to preserving order at any cost. But unlike many of those who commit crimes in the name of freedom, Cole and Hitch have a shared soft spot; the attentions of a widow named Mrs. Allison French (Renée Zellweger), a sexual free agent whose own wandering eye and love of the alpha male causes immeasurable misery for the men who seek her approval. As the lawmen shoot the shit and spend their days defending the town and planning the capture, trial and execution of the murderous Bragg, the affable, macho give and take between the men becomes the heart of the movie.
Ed Harris’ Appaloosa
What gives Appaloosa its gravity and keeps the comeradery and humor in balance are the bursts of violence that shape the experience of these hard-scrabble men. Bullets fly without warning, egos are bruised by a slap to the face or the butt of a gun to the chops; the crazy, lawless nature of interpersonal politics in a society without rules is what makes this story go. These guys are ready for anything, cold as ice and able to draw their six shooters in an instant to show their rivals what’s what. In this sense, Appaloosa is very much a classic Western, a return to the fullness of a genre which, despite being a rare artifact in recent years, continues to be a robust vessel for the delivery of modern ideas, able to celebrate humor, violent intensity, sexual dynamics and American politics comfortably within a single form. With The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford last year and now Appaloosa this year, we may be seeing a much welcome (in my mind anyway) Western revivial of sorts.
While Harris the actor shines in the film, Harris the Director takes an often casual approach to telling this story; A more measured hand would trim a few of the useless reaction shots, the glorified close ups that allow the actors to show off, and a few exteriors that can’t quite capture the Fordian grandeur of the western landscape. That said, any other director would probably have scrubbed these performances of their vitality, of the loose moments between the actors when they were obviously having a great time. Harris, Mortensen, Irons and Zellweger are clearly having a blast playing cowboy, and the generally light tone of the script allows for Harris to take a few chances with the material he may not otherwise have taken; These ideas and moments don’t all pay off, but there is a lot fun of fun to be found in Harris’ few mistakes. Although Appaloosa borrows generously from films like Unforgiven (which I regard as a classic), The Magnificent Seven and High Noon, it still feels highly original, both in its modernity and its style. I think Appaloosa is a real hoot, an incredibly pleasant surprise and any fan of the Western as a genre will find a lot to like in Harris’ shaggy tale of vengeance and law enforcement run amok.