Appaloosa (Warner Brothers, R)

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It’s a promising beginning, whetting our appetite for a western with all the trimmings we’ve come to expect from the classics, including grand moral themes, stunning landscapes and lots of action. But…

 

Hoof beats, a laconic confrontation between the law and the lawless, sudden gunfire and bodies bite the dust. Appaloosa wastes no time getting into action, and that’s all before the opening credits.
The breathless pace continues after the opening credits. We are next introduced to gunmen for hire Virgil Cole (Ed Harris) and Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen), in Everett’s voiceover as they ride into the frontier town of Appaloosa. They offer their services to rid the town of Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons), the film’s Big Bad whom we met in the opening sequence.

No sooner are Virgil and Everett hired, with absolute power to rule the town until they eliminate Bragg and his gang, than the train rolls in to town. Notable among the disembarking passengers is the fetching Allie French (Reneé Zellweger), who claims to be a widow with only a dollar to her name and no marketable skills other than playing the piano. And that’s only 15 minutes into a film that lasts almost two hours.

It’s a promising beginning, whetting our appetite for a western with all the trimmings we’ve come to expect from the classics, including grand moral themes, stunning landscapes and lots of action. But things quickly go downhill as director Harris seems unwilling to pick a lane. Sometimes Appaloosa seems bent on exploiting the standard clichés of the western genre, right down to the familiar musical cues for suspense, while at others it seems striving to be a modernist update full of ambiguity and dealing with previously ignored issues such as the power of sexuality and the place of women in frontier life.

The main problem is the screenplay by Robert Knott and Ed Harris, from a novel by Robert B. Parker. The grand sweep of events promised in the opening minutes quickly devolves into a series of contrivances, rushed encounters and odd decisions that are entirely unsatisfying. This race to the lowest common denominator also contradicts the iconic visual cast of the movie, which is established through excellent work by the technical crew including cinematographer Dean Semler, production designer Waldemar Kalinowsky, art director Steve Arnold, set decorator Linda Lee Sutton and costume designer David C. Robinson.

Mortensen and Harris establish an interesting buddy relationship, although it’s one we’ve seen many times before. You might say that Mortensen plays Morgan Freeman to Harris’s Tim Robbins: He’s the wise and faithful companion who allows his buddy to be the leader, but is always there to back him up, curb his more destructive impulses, and explain and excuse him to others.

Zellweger is stuck with a thankless role as a round-heeled gold digger, frontier style, but doesn’t help matters any with her entirely superficial characterization. Most of the minor roles are throwaways, with the exception of Timothy Spall as one of the townspeople and Ariadna Gil as Mortensen’s special girl, when she’s not servicing other customers. In fact, Gil’s performance is both deeper and more subtle than Zellweger’s, demonstrating that her performance as Carmen Vidal in Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth was no fluke. | Sarah Boslaugh

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