Review of “Appaloosa” (2008), director: Ed Harris, first published in “Sight and Sound” magazine Volume 18, Issue 12, December 2008.
New Mexico Territory, 1882. Appaloosa town marshal Jack Bell is shot dead by rancher Randall Bragg after trying to arrest members of his gang. Hired guns Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch are brought in to stop Bragg’s gang terrorizing the town. After Cole kills three of his gang, Bragg offers to make a deal. Cole refuses. Widow Allison French arrives in town, and begins a romance with Cole. One of Bragg’s men says he will testify against Bragg.
Cole and Hitch visit Bragg’s ranch, arrest him, and bring him to jail. Hitch meets French alone; she attempts to kiss him but he resists. Brought to trial, Bragg is sentenced to hang. En route they are ambushed by gunslingers the Sheldon brothers who have taken French hostage. Hitch and Cole release Bragg but trail him. Bragg and the Sheldons are ambushed by Indians. Cole and Hitch save them, the Sheldons agree to hand over Bragg to the authorities. Arriving at jail, Cole and Hitch are double-crossed. They kill the Sheldons but Bragg escapes. Cole, Hitch and French return to Appaloosa. Bragg is pardoned; claiming he is reformed, he too returns to Appaloosa. Hitch resigns his position as marshal and kills Bragg. He leaves town, and Cole and French are left to settle down together.
Bringing “Appaloosa” to the screen seems to have been a labour of love for producer, co-writer, director and star Ed Harris. If that impressive account of his contributions was not enough, he even managed to find time to sing over the closing credits. Just looking at the amount of sheer effort expended by one man to bring his vision to fruition would suggest the work of a driven auteur keen to impose his very soul on the screen. It is a shame then, that the results are so lacklustre. Appaloosa is solid, uninspired, undemanding; the kind of filler that might kill a few hours between Sunday lunch and teatime. Though it explicitly seems to repudiate revisionism, almost in spite of itself, the film occasionally flickers with insight and emotional intimacy. Harris never lets these faintly subversive themes come to life though, instead happy to indulge an almost whimsical traditionalism.
The slightly hackneyed setup sees Harris and Mortensen’s hired guns Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch brought in by the lawmakers of the titular town to rein in the lawless antics of Jeremy Iron’s rancher Randall Bragg. It quickly becomes clear though, that Bragg and his gang are hardly a challenge for Virgil and Hitch who instead occupy themselves with vying over the attentions Renee Zellweger – another new arrival in Appaloosa.
Harris has publicly stated that the film’s reason for being was merely enjoyment but, even on this simple level it very much falls flat. In a period where the western flavoured likes of “A History of Violence” and “No Country for Old Men” have ramped mainstream suspense and action to sadistic levels of intensity, the succession of shoot-outs and face-offs feel quaint. Of course, Harris is unlikely to be aiming for the grisly punch of such fare, yet the sharp violence of the opening, promises similar visceral rhythms. In this first scene Jeremy Irons’ Bragg exudes a clipped, brutal menace which almost immediately dissipates the moment Harris and Mortensen ride into town.
By placing the focus of the film so heavily on the stoic camaraderie between the two men, the battle between them and Bragg for control of the titular town is reduced to little more than set dressing. The pair are so assured and capable in the face of violence that they seem indestructible; there is little tension, little sense that either could ever really be in any danger. Irons’ under-written villain is robbed of any threat or motivation; it is hard to tell if he is meant to be cold blooded killer or a weasely coward. The real tension in the film comes from the intrusion of Zellweger’s widow into this homo-social world. Her character’s desire for companionship is portrayed sympathetically as being as much pragmatic as romantic. As another character helpfully spells out towards the end, ‘love is hard for a woman out here.’ Most of the film’s more memorable scenes occur when Harris’ stoic masculinity is challenged by the emotions she forces him to deal with. The film’s best scenes are those coloured by a humane sense of confusion and embarrassment as the characters tentatively try and deal with feelings that their harsh environment seems to forbid. All too often though, these fleeting moments are crushed by the demands of the stolid heroics that power the narrative.
It’s hard not to draw comparison with last year’s “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford”. Where Andrew Dominik’s film explored, often painfully, the social pressures of the Old West, Harris can never quite bring himself to let go of cinematic myth and convention. Where Dominik allowed his characters, and their foibles, to breathe, Harris suffocates his with threadbare machismo. If it wasn’t for the sporadic moments of emotional insight it would be easier to accept “Appaloosa” as the easy-going potboiler it is. As it stands, this is both a missed opportunity and a waste of top-level talents in second-rate fare.
Paul Scott 2008