Reviewed by: Jeff Robson

The Western refuses to lie down and die – and a darn good thing too, as far as this critic is concerned. The most American of genres is still the best place to go for character conflict and moral dilemma boiled down to the essentials, with hopefully a rootin’, tootin’ shootout along the way.

Ed Harris’s labour of love (he also co-produced) delivers on both counts. And while it may not quite rise to the heights of a true latter-day classic like Unforgiven, it has enough of both the familiar and the original to satisfy genre aficionados – and perhaps even the odd tenderfoot.

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It concerns two itinerant ‘lawmen’, Virgil Cole (Harris) and Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen). Town-tamers in the Wyatt Earp mould, they've spent years riding into lawless ‘burgs and earning the townsfolk’s gratitude and hard cash by nailing up a set of rules outlawing anything they don’t much approve of, and killing or beating senseless anyone who dares challenge them.

Their latest assignment is the town of Appaloosa, run by Randall Bragg, a rancher who has terrified the local officials, given his hands the run of the place and – crucially – killed a marshall who was an old friend of Cole’s. A real 24-carat, old-style Western villain, he’s played, of course, by – Jeremy Irons?

Well, it was probably more fun than cameo-ing in the Brideshead remake. And this bit of, shall we say, surprise casting, proves the first of the film’s many triumphant curveballs. Gaunt, bearded and implacable, (and with a decent American accent) Irons resembles one of the less inclusive Old Testament prophets. But, as the lawmen discover, he also possesses cunning and ruthless charm by the bucketload and putting him on trial for murder proves easier said than done.

It could be argued that Irons’s portrayal owes something of a debt to Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood, but who’s complaining when the results are this much fun? Like Daniel Plainview, Bragg is a fascinating combination of righteousness and utter amorality, able to use both the gun and the law book to protect the things he feels he’s earned – his land, his money and his men’s loyalty.

So, a worthy adversary for Cole and Everett and a classic ‘advance of the New West’ conflict of power and influence against old-fashioned courage and integrity. Fair enough, but not exactly new territory. Then into the mix comes Allison (Renee Zellweger), a young widow with no means of support, who arrives off the stagecoach, takes a job playing piano at the local saloon, and sets her cap at Virgil.

He returns her feelings and the two become engaged, but it soon becomes apparent that (in the immortal words of Benny Hill) a woman’s needs are manyfold. Put another way, she proves a bit too free with her affections. Making a pass at Everett she is firmly rebuffed. Then, when Bragg uses a couple of hired guns to kidnap her as a bargaining chip in his struggle to evade justice, she ends up getting remarkably friendly with her abductors – watched by Cole, who has taken up the pursuit. As Everett ruefully observes “she likes being with the boss stallion”.

On paper, this sounds sexist, not to say misogynistic, a throwback to the lesser Fifties Westerns where women were always either virginal or sluttish. But Allison is a much more subtle and complex character; worn down by life in a male-dominated society, but with a survivor’s natural instincts. Zellweger, looking pinched and windburned but radiating a feisty zest for life, gives a cracking performance too. She makes the audience understand why she make the decisions she makes – and why Cole continues to love and protect her even when he knows the truth.

Meanwhile Bragg continues to cheat the noose and is building up his power base in the town again. Everett realises that to bring matters to a head, and ensure that Cole and Allison have some chance at happiness, drastic steps have to be taken – and things may never be the same again...

At heart, the film is as much about the relationship between Cole and Everett as anything. As comfortable in silence as an old married couple, addressing each other with formal politeness, they come across as a middle-aged version of Butch and Sundance. But fortunately, the film doesn’t bolt on a gay ‘subtext’ (in fact, Everett gets his own relationship, with a Mexican bar girl, just to make darn sure you don’t go thinkin’ that way). Like many classic Westerns, from Rio Bravo through to Unforgiven, this is about male friendship, in an era when it was routinely tested in life-or-death situations.

Rounding off a quartet of star turns, Harris and Mortensen (so effective on opposite sides in the latter-day Western A History Of Violence) inhabit their roles like well-worn riding boots. Harris, black-clad and unsmiling yet devoted to the law and as capable of moments of tenderness as sudden flashes of violence, recalls the late, great Richard Widmark; in fact, one of Widmark’s finest hours was in Edward Dmytryk’s Warlock, which explores a similar dynamic between its pistolero anti-heros.

And Mortensen is simply superb. Finally cast in a proper Western (unlike the overblown Hidalgo) and bearing an uncanny resemblance to Wild Bill Hickok, he’s a believable portrait of a man with a core of simple decency, utterly incapable of betraying his friend or letting him down in any way, and willing to risk his own life to make things right.

The film looks fantastic (courtesy of Dances With Wolves cinematographer Dean Semler) and the dialogue (getting much comic mileage from Cole’s attempts to ‘speak proper’ and better himself through reading Emerson and other classic authors) has the ring of truth. It meanders a bit in the middle and perhaps tries too hard to attain a ‘classic’ feel. But Harris the director handles both the personal moments and the action sequences well. The gunfights, when they come, are brief, brutal and believable (take note, everyone involved in the 3:10 To Yuma remake) and the build-ups are an object lesson in how to create cinematic tension.

I think it’s a shame that there aren’t more Westerns about these days, but it means that when one comes along you can be pretty sure that a lot of loving care and respect for the genre has gone into it. Appaloosa is no exception.

Reviewed on: 22 Oct 2008
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Appaloosa packshot
Two professional ‘peace-keepers’ try to bring law and order to a town run by a murderous rancher. But matters are complicated when a young widow arrives.
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Director: Ed Harris

Writer: Robert Knott, Ed Harris, Robert B. Parker

Starring: Ed Harris, Viggo Mortensen, Renee Zellweger, Jeremy Irons, Robert Jauregui, Timothy V Murphy

Year: 2008

Runtime: 114 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US


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3.10 To Yuma