Appaloosa Review


The western is one of my favorite genres of film. They take you to a time that’s alien to us—a time when laws and morals were different, almost incomprehensible to what we know today. It’s also a time that’s been captured many times on film, but not so much recently. Every year, it seems one or two westerns pop up, but compared to both Hollywood’s and the general public’s love affair with the genre in the past, westerns are a rare occurrence. But the list of modern westerns is a pretty prestigious list to be on: “Unforgiven” and “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” are two great examples. And films like There Will Be Blood and “No Country for Old Men,” while not traditional westerns, share many of the westerns most popular themes.

The 2008 entry into the genre was “Appaloosa,” and it’s a tough one for me to grade. There were a lot of things I liked, a few things I loved, and a handful of things that frustrated me about it. The period settings and technical features are impeccable. The characters are fully formed and interesting. But the narrative stumbles all over the place, threatening to derail the entire picture. Still, on the basis of the film’s look, its characters, and a handful of exciting, powerful moments, I’m cautiously recommending it.

In the late 1800s, few towns are as lawless as Appaloosa, in the New Mexico territory. A man named Bragg (Jeremy Irons) and his gang of outlaws do whatever they want with few repercussions. And when someone, like Marshall Bell, stands up to Bragg, he usually winds up dead. Appaloosa’s leaders bring in Virgil Cole (Ed Harris) and his partner, Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen) to keep the peace. The two are like hired guns, except on the right side of the law. Eventually, they are able to arrest Bragg for the Marshall’s murder, but their partnership and control on the town is tested repeatedly by threats from Bragg’s allies. And their easy partnership is further tested when Allison French (Renee Zelleweger) shows up and woos Virgil. She insists she’s not a whore, but her attitude toward any man in power seems to contradict that sentiment.

The biggest problem relates to the narrative. It raises some interesting questions related to friendship, justice and love, but it sort of just meanders along from scene to scene with no specific place in mind. It becomes clear in the final ten minutes what the film was leading up to, but it takes a very roundabout way to get there. Despite its narrative deficiencies, however, “Appaloosa” still features some memorable moments. The conclusion is terrific. And two confrontations in the second half of the feature are incredibly tense.

The films strength, unsurprisingly, lies in its technical features. The art direction, cinematography, costumes, etc. are all appropriate for the period. Good westerns take you away to a distant time and place, and “Appaloosa” succeeds greatly in that respect. It wasn’t recognized by any guilds or the Academy, but I think that can be credited to the film’s early release date and tepid reception by the public. The quality is absolutely there.

The acting is also quite good. Ed Harris is one of those actors I’ll see in just about anything. Splitting time in front of and behind the camera here, Harris develops a very interesting character. It seems the only difference between him and someone like Bragg is his badge. He also has a number of little quirks, like his poor vocabulary, that make him seem vulnerable. Everett is the steady gun behind Virgil’s toughness. He supports his friend in the same way Mortensen supports Harris. Renee Zellweger is surprisingly effective as Allison, probably because the character is more than just your average damsel-in-distress. And Jeremy Irons is great in the “black hat” role, although he doesn’t have a ton to do.

“Appaloosa” died a quick death at the box office in 2008, which is probably why it took me until now to see it. But it’s a worthwhile use of your movie-watching time, especially for fans of the genre. It doesn’t measure up to many other modern westerns, but Harris’ film is still much better than a lot of the nonsense released nowadays.

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