It seems yonks since 3:10 To Yuma and The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford came out. It was only last year. 2007 was the year of the western. That Ed Harris’ Appaloosa comes well after the release of these films gives is a good thing for the western. If you were to put Appaloosa up against these films, it would be seen as the weakest of the three. It’s a noble effort. But due to some problems with the script and editing, Appaloosa is ultimately a solid, but flawed film.
Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch arrive in the town of Appaloosa looking to bring law and order to a town that seems to have lost it’s way. The town is suffering due to the threat of Randall Bragg, a violent rancher with men who are less interested in law than they are in rape, theft and murder. Cole’s methods are stern. But he sees them as the only way to harmony. When Allison French arrives in the town, Cole sees the potential for a stable life. Something he has never had. But the threat from Bragg, and Allison’s less than reliable loyalty to her man threaten the town, and Cole’s dream of a happy life.
Appaloosa has a lot of strengths. The performances, from a pretty strong cast, are almost spot on. Ed Harris, who directs as well as stars as Virgil Cole is just as strong as he’s been in any film. What’s strange about Appaloosa is the light-heartedness that runs through some of it. Maybe we’ve become accustomed to heavy-handed westerns in everything from Unforgiven to There Will Be Blood. And it would seem that this light-heartedness is entirely intentional. Which isn’t a bad thing. When the film starts it’s shooting (and this is a western. I wanna see plenty of gunfights) it’s pretty good. But unfortunately, for a film that clocks 2 hours, these moments are rare and brief.
The problem with Appaloosa lies in the writing and editing. Harris, and co-writer Robert Knott have plenty to say about love, friendship and all the other things that buddy-movie, love and westerns usually say. However, in a script that could use a lot of trimming, these themes get somewhat lost. The film feels like a mish-mash of ideas that are a little all over the place. Scenes are either too long or too brief with cuts that feel like they’re made just before some more dialogue is spoken. I know that sounds like a contradiction, but there are moments where you feel a little lingering on characters or landscape would be great. And then there are moments that leave you going ‘wait, go back to that!’
As I said, the film is full of great performances. Harris seems to get all the comedy. And he mixes that with the dour nature of Cole pretty well. Viggo Mortensen is, as usual, brilliant. I dunno if directors keep perfectly casting him in roles, or that Mortensen has the uncanny ability of putting himself in any role and make it look like it was written for him. Maybe it’s both. Regardless, he’s yet again the best thing in the movie. Jeremy Irons again proves he makes a great villain, being both loathsome and likable at the same time. And it’s great to see Lance Henriksen get a meaty role for once. The guy deserves more screen time. Renee Zellweger yet again forces the question ‘can Renee Zellweger act?’ There are moments when she’s perfectly fine in her role. Yet there are other times when she just comes across as if she’s been at the stash of marijuana I’m sure one of the grips has stashed away on set.
As I said, Appaloosa isn’t a bad film. It’s just a flawed one. A film that needed a little more focus and direction. Harris does a good job. Just not a great one. The performances are for the most part, excellent. And there are some great moments. It’s just a shame the film wasn’t tidied up a little more and polished.