In a week where an inordinate number of movies opened locally, the clear winner for me is Ed Harris’ Appaloosa—the one film that left me with a sense that I had really seen something, and that what I had seen was at least very close to what the filmmaker intended. Depending on whose review you read, Appaloosa is either a very traditional western or it’s a revisionist one. In fact, it’s a little bit of both, but then westerns are so rare these days that the definition can be broadened. A case could be made that the Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men (2007) qualifies as a western. But the film that Appaloosa most reminded me of is another of the Coens’, Miller’s Crossing (1990).
No, Appaloosa doesn’t have the same plot as Miller’s Crossing, but it has the same tone and a not dissimilar dynamic as concerns the two main characters. Looked at in any depth, the thrust of both films is the romance between two men. Here these are Virgil Cole (Ed Harris) and Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen), who roughly fill the roles of Albert Finney and Gabriel Byrne in Miller’s Crossing. In both films, there’s the slightly older man, who’s not as bright as his young companion on whom he’s come to rely. Similarly, in both cases, there’s a sense of a long history between the two—and of that history being threatened by the arrival of a woman on the scene. The primary difference here is that the situation is less sexualized.
Virgil and Everett are hired killers—of a special kind. They’re employed by small western towns in need of men to bring law and order to their communities. So they’re hired killers with the—very broadly defined—legal powers to be such. Their latest town is Appaloosa, where the city fathers—headed up by the very nervous Phil Olson (Timothy Spall in a performance that alone would make the film worth seeing)—have become fed up with the lawless ways of local bad man Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons). The tactics of Virgil and Everett may not suit everyone, but their results are hard to argue with.
Enter Allison French (Renée Zellweger), a woman who claims to be a widow. She rides into town on the train one day with a couple bags, a hatbox and (she says) one dollar. Virgil is immediately interested in her (even more so when he establishes that she’s not a whore), and soon she’s getting at him with the more or less willing help of Everett, who she seems to view as a confidante. It’s not long before Virgil finds himself buying an under-construction house that’s up for grabs, where he plans to settle down with Allie (“She likes to be called Allie”)—to the slightly sad bemusement of Everett, who suspects that Allie isn’t quite the idealized woman Virgil thinks she is. Without saying too much, it’s fair to say that she isn’t.
This domestic side of the film is interrupted when one of Bragg’s men (Gabriel Marantz) has an attack of conscience and decides to testify that he saw Bragg murder the former town marshal and his deputies. At this point, the plot becomes more complicated—and more like a traditional western with all the tropes the genre has to offer. But it should be noted that this is handled well, and the story never loses sight of the psychological complexity of its three main characters and their interrelationships. If it feels a bit like an old Howard Hawks western (no slacker with the subtext himself)—right down to capping the film with a pop song (courtesy of Tom Petty) for the ending credits—that’s not a bad thing. In fact, it gives Appaloosa the sense of the legacy of the genre that movies like Open Range (2003) and The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005) don’t quite have.
In the end, what makes Appaloosa such a satisfying work is that it is grounded in characterization, and Harris and his performers are capable of making the viewer care about the fates of those characters. Sure, there’s nothing but slightly effete, lip-smacking villainy to Jeremy Irons’ performance, but he’s just window dressing; the focus is on the three principal players. That’s what works. The great thing about the western today is that while we get very few of them, those we get tend to be of a pretty high caliber—and Appaloosa continues that trend. Rated R for some violence and language.