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Appaloosa Carries Us into the West

Michelle Fordice | Friday, October 10, 2008

“Appaloosa” tries to recapture the classic western for a modern audience. Cloaking some of today’s stars – including Ed Harris, Viggo Mortensen, Jeremy Irons, and Reneé Zellweger – in Stetsons, bustles, and some serious statement mustaches, the film returns to the genre that has fascinated American audiences for so long, exploring its depths without sacrificing its fun.

Beginning in 1882, “Appaloosa” is western opera at its best. Gunmen and peacemakers Virgil Cole (Harris) and Everett Hitch (Mortensen) are hired by the New Mexican town of Appaloosa to reign in an ambitious entrepreneur, Randall Bragg (Irons), who, backed by his less than cleanly ranch hands, is terrorizing the town’s citizens and even went so far as to murder the marshal and his deputies because they got in his way. Cole and Hitch begin to make progress by establishing that their word is law and their will the executioner, but matters are complicated when Allison French, a likeable young widower with a penchant for knowing which man is on the rise and a need to attach herself to him, arrives on the scene. “Appaloosa” addresses many themes, most prominently the distinctions between law and justice and the tension between ourselves and the roles we fill.

This film is carried by its characters, and hence its actors. Harris portrays Cole as a layer of complete calm and stoicism over a burning intensity and pride. Mortensen is a strong mixture of patience and backbone hidden behind a wide brimmed hat, gun, and domineering mustache. Both actors portray powerful emotions with such subtlety that it is astounding. Despite legendary qualities, their characters come across as real men. Zelweger’s character, Allison, is a breath of fresh air in the western drama. Unlike the majority of the women found in these movies, she has depth and dynamism, even if she may not always be appealing. She embodies what it means to be a woman in a world where the men are expected to be tough and enterprising, while the women have little they can do to support themselves. Of course, the film focuses on the male bond between Virgil and Everett, leaving her hanging in many ways. Bragg, played by Irons, is deliciously arrogant and menacing, all while maintaining a sort of charming appeal that makes you understand how he can not only function in the world, but at times be liked by it. The realism and depth the characters have turn what could have been merely a dramatic period piece with a touch of action into a film that moves the audience to think about issues that surpass the film’s setting.

Of course, “Appaloosa” is not all about deep thought. Not only are there those wonderful western action scenes, including several gunfights, but there is also considerable humor. The film is willing to laugh at itself, and the characters are willing to laugh at each other. Some of the buddy moments between Cole and Hitch and the palpable awkwardness Cole expresses in relation to his feelings for Allison create great moments. It is also a striking film pictorially, capturing the dramatic beauty of New Mexico.

The film is deliberately paced and considerate of what it wants to say. In some ways it is safe, and in the role of director, Harris did not try to reinvent what the western. Yet it does not hesitate to explore the material that is there. The film balances the realism and legend of its characters, portraying a world in which real men can be real heroes, hearkening back to the Westerns that came before it, but not giving in to the temptation to make its heroes flat.

“Appaloosa” leaves you with the feeling that this is only a glimpse into the lives of the characters and the story of the West. In the end you desire more. You aren’t satisfied with a ride off into the sunset, you want to follow them on, further into the west.