The western; proclaimed dead a couple of times but every time someone does that a new movie is being released, most of the time critically acclaimed. Unforgiven is a good example, as is the recent remake of 3:10 to Yuma. So it’s safe to say (certain) genres don’t disappear, they reinvent themselves or at least take a hiatus.
Now the western is once again back from hibernation in the form of Appaloosa, a movie from Ed Harris, starring Ed Harris… and a couple of other big names.
Appaloosa is set in 1882. Last week I did a review on Changeling, a period piece set in the 1920’s. It’s quite remarkable when comparing both movies to each other how much has changed in those years: from an environment where people ride horseback, live in small typical western towns and gunslinging is daily behaviour to a place where people drive cars, feuds aren’t a reason to do a stand off, organised police departments and all. Two worlds seperated by only 40 years yet so different. Go back 40 years from today and all you’ll be missing is the internet and mobile phones. But this all has actually nothing to do with the movie.
In Appaloosa Randall Bragg (Irons), a rancher who rules a small town and shoots the Sherrif in cold blood when he comes to collect to of his workers. Virgil Cole (Harris) and Everett Hitch (Mortensen) are brought in to act as marshal and deputy. Then a woman appears on the scene named Allie, a widow with an interest in Virgil.
Appaloosa is an old school western. The good guys aren’t wearing white hats but other than that the movie’s atmosphere lies close to it’s predecessors. What was interesting is how the characters were fleshed out. Ed Harris’s Virgil Cole: one of the best gunslingers in the West, if not the best. He tries to establishes himself more than just a simple enforcer by using fancy words all the time, him being uneducated makes this hard and so we get to see him stumble upon words multiple times. We don’t know what this man drives. One minute we see him reading a book to expand his vocabulary, the other he’s beating people up for no good reason. His longlife friend and partner is Mortensen’s Everett Hitch who also narrates the story from time to time. He’s silent and clearly loyal to Virgil, yet he is smarter and more emotionally balanced. They have a bit of an Inspector Gadget – brain relationship. Mortensen being Brain.
These two men have to face multiple obstacles when on duty in Appaloosa. The most difficult not being any of the outlaws that cross their path but rather a woman. Renee Zellweger plays Allie. A piano player and widow. When she comes into town Virgil asks her if she’s a whore which she finds not only rude but of course denies. After that she and Virgil start a relationship. During the course of the movie it quickly becomes clear that Allie’s loyalties lie with whomever is the pack-leader around her. She displays affection to Everett just in case something should happen to Virgil. When being kidnapped she fucks with the leader of the gang and when Randall becomes wealthy and turns out to be able to run the town she doesn’t shy away from his avances. This girl invented gold-digging in an era when gold-digging was normally done with a sluice box.
It’s interesting to see how Virgil accpets her behaviour becuase it’s clear she doesn’t love him, she loves his status and whoever has that status when he’s without it. People have commented negatively on Zellweger’s role. Zellweger, this time with barely make-up put on, plays a character who we don’t like for what she is. It’s not her acting that is bad, is her character. So in my opinion she doesn’t deserve the negative credit. Maybe people were expecting a Bridget Jones-like character. Something that is hinted at from the first moment she walks on screen.
Appaloosa is a solid film, with strong acting and a compelling storyline. It might not break new ground but it is a good entry in it’s genre.