The new Old West
Ed Harris revives the western with a lot of help from badass Viggo Mortensen
At times, Ed Harris’ Appaloosa feels a like a reworked legend of the mythical Old West—the story of Wyatt Earp and the gunfight at the OK Corral, say, and rather as it might have been viewed while under the influence of latter-day Clint Eastwood and his classic Unforgiven in particular.
Harris’ film, which he directed, co-wrote (with R. Knott), and stars in, is no masterpiece, but it is a boldly entertaining take on the old genre, distinguished in particular by its success in seeming old-fashioned and “classic” without losing a certain contemporary bite. Some of that is undoubtedly the result of the filmmakers’ briskly cinematic rendering of its source material, the recent western novel by Robert B. Parker, an author celebrated for his noirish crime fiction in New England settings.
On film, Appaloosa has the harsh brilliance of its New Mexican desert landscapes and period settings to go with a classic lawman/gunfighter plot. But the characters and their various stories are steeped in the inflections of crime fiction and film noir—moral ambiguity, treachery and fatalism, corrupt ambition, tragic violence, brutal paradox.
Virgil Cole (Harris) is the stern lawman, Wyatt Earp-like, and Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen) is his sidekick/partner (a composite of Doc Holliday and Morgan Earp, perhaps). Randall Bragg (a vulpine Jeremy Irons) is the murderously tyrannical ranch boss whom these two pistol-packing “peace-makers” are charged with reining in. The widowed Mrs. French (Renée Zellweger), a Clementinish femme fatale for all three, adds a particularly surprising dimension to the story’s overlapping triangles of fraternal conflict and deflected lust.
Its impressive cast notwithstanding, the film thrives more on iconic values in the actors than on their actual performances. The superb period costumes and sets, Dean Semler’s somberly lyrical cinematography, and Harris’ astutely quirky pacing of the action count for a good deal more than the generically serviceable acting elicited from the star players (himself included). Moody, lingering dialogue scenes predominate, but do not outweigh the stunningly abrupt scenes of violent outdoor action—an approach that ultimately proves well-suited to the story’s persistent disruptions of generic character clichés.
The film’s one small acting coup comes from Mortensen, who brings a kind of ferociously stoical modesty to Hitch, who eventually emerges as the pivotal figure in the tale’s peculiar combination of anti-romantic heroism and anti-heroic epic. Among the supporting players, Timothy Spall and James Gammon make piquant comic caricatures as nervous city fathers in the town of Appaloosa, and Bob L. Harris, the actor/director’s father, has a pungent bit as an incorruptible circuit judge. Ariadna Gil makes a hauntingly elusive impression as a world-weary counterpart to Mrs. French.