Written by: Mike Caccioppoli, Feature Film Critic
In a second opinion, Mike Caccioppoli makes a strong case for this modern Western
Ed Harris’ Appaloosa is the kind of western one would expect from an actor whose characters have always been about their brains as much as their brawn. I overheard a young guy on his way out of the theater complaining about how “There were only about twelve bullets fired in the whole movie.” Indeed, if you’re expecting lots of shootouts and bar fights, you’re going to be greatly disappointed. Not to say that there isn’t some of each in Appaloosa, it’s just that Harris understands that most men with half a brain probably spent more time avoiding these situations than doing everything they could to get into them. I believe this is the right approach, especially in a film that itself avoids most western movie clichés and stereotypes.
Harris plays Virgil Cole and Viggo Mortensen is Everett Hitch, and together they travel from town to town in search of work enforcing the law in otherwise lawless places. Cole’s “official” title is City Marshall, and Hitch is his deputy. When they arrive in Appaloosa they find a town that is run by a local rancher named Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons), who believes that he’s the decider when it comes to the town’s laws or lack thereof. The film begins with Bragg killing the previous Marshall and his two deputies, which propels the town leaders to hire Cole and Hitch, entrusting them to clean things up. It doesn’t take long before the local outlaws are served notice, as Cole doesn’t mince words and he certainly won’t hesitate to use his six shooter if need be. When Bragg first encounters Cole he realizes that things are about to change in town, and not to his liking.
Cole is the kind of guy who has spent most of his life wandering from place to place, living the kind of life that precludes him from ever really settling down. So when the beautiful Allison French (Renee Zelzegger) arrives in town he’s immediately fascinated with her, especially since she’s not married and, as Cole likes to put it, “Not a whore or a squaw.” Cole believes that, “Feelings can get you killed” but he can’t help but have them for Allison, despite the fact that she may indeed have an interest in screwing just about any man in town. He even decides to build a house for them to live in, and while Hitch may object he can certainly understand why Cole is so enamored with Allison. In the meantime there’s a young man who tells Cole that he saw Bragg murder the Marshall and his men, and that he’ll testify to the fact in court. When Cole and Hitch arrest Bragg for murder it sets into motion a chain of events that might threaten the peace in Appaloosa, as well as Cole’s relationship with Allison.
Harris, in adapting the Robert B. Parker novel with Robert Knott, shows that he is much more interested in the relationships between his characters and in their dialogue than he is in gunfights and horse chases. In fact there are many scenes where Cole and Hitch simply talk about where there are in life, how they got there and where they go from here. Cole might be a straight shooter, but when it comes to women he’s usually tongue tied; the scene where Cole awkwardly asks Hitch about curtain hanging, it’s a moment that’s both humorous and completely human. There are so many moments like this in Appaloosa, where a scene such as the one where Cole beats the crap out of a guy in a bar is followed by one where he’s practically walking on air after spending some “quality time” with Allison. While Cole and Hitch have certainly killed their share of men, it’s not what makes them who they are. Harris is curious about all of the time in between the violence too.
If I’ve made Appaloosa sound all warm and fuzzy it’s not. In fact since the scenes of violence are so expertly paced it makes them all the more intense, especially since we actually care about these guys. When Cole tries to talk down a violent situation, we hang on his every word because we know the next one could be the last before he has to do what he has to do. You know that any western that casts Jeremy Irons isn’t going to play by the usual rules, and while he is certainly menacing as Bragg, he’s also smart and charming as well, a bad guy that a lot of people like hanging out with. By lending his characters a brain as well as a heart, Harris not only humanizes the western but also makes it more accessible to modern audiences at the same time. His characters could exist in any place or at any time. Cole and Hitch are good friends that have always looked out for each other and not only with their firearms. Their relationship is the cornerstone of the film as Harris and Mortensen allow us to see into their characters psyches, to what makes them tick.
Appaloosa is a western unlike any other and seemingly much closer to the way it really was than anything served up by John Ford, no offense intended of course.