Movie Review: Appaloosa (2008)

Viggo Mortensen and Ed Harris in Appaloosa
Photo: New Line Cinema

Appaloosa is an excellent breath of fresh air giving life to a genre I would desperately enjoy seeing make a comeback. So many film lovers can point to classic westerns as some of their favorites, and on the unfortunate passing of Paul Newman recently the classic Hud is another classic that again bubbles to the surface. Unfortunately, as Hollywood has gotten more blockbuster driven the desire to see big explosions and CGI driven features has pushed the western into the background with only one or two coming out each year (and that’s if we are lucky). While Appaloosa won’t necessarily be converting many to once again ask for more westerns, you would be hard-pressed to come out of this film not enjoying it. It’s far better than last year’s 3:10 to Yuma and does much more than that cliched flick did for the genre.

Co-written, co-starring and directed by Ed Harris, the film focuses on two gunmen who make their living going from town-to-town getting hired on to brandish their own form of justice. We catch up with the duo as they begin work in the town of Appaloosa and their main focus is Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons). Something of a local bad boy, Bragg is suspected of killing a local sheriff and his two deputies and our two protagonists are determined to get to the bottom of the situation by any means deemed necessary.

Harris and Viggo Mortensen play our gunslingers, Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch respectively, and at the outset you get the feeling this is a story about the two men equally, or even Virgil alone as he is drawn to a new Appaloosa resident played by Renee Zellweger and much of his past and present life story becomes a central storyline. However, as the film plays out to a fantastic ending you realize there is much more to the story than you originally believed, and that realization gives the audience a far greater appreciation for what they just watched. The film doesn’t play any tricks to try and manipulate the viewer into thinking one way or another, it’s a conclusion that comes to the forefront without any great struggle and the film is better for it.

This is only Harris’s second time in the director’s chair after 2000’s Pollock, but his direction isn’t what deserves the attention as much as it is his acting. He plays Virgil with a quiet intensity that is far more subdued than so many of the tough guy roles we have seen Harris in over the years. The difference here being we are more afraid of the quiet Harris than we are any of the more snarling performances he’s given. There is an unknown quality to his character that comes to the surface only once in the film, but it is enough to make you think twice about anything he may do. Of course, Harris also gives himself several great lines and despite his volatile disposition his character is highly likable.

Viggo Mortensen only gets better and better each time you see him, and as Everett Hitch there isn’t a complaint to be had. Everett is a man of few words and he oftentimes has to lend a few to Virgil as Virgil is continually trying to up his vocabulary. The interaction between the two men is one of respect and 100-percent trust that proves itself in a moment where Zellweger’s character accuses Everett of hitting on her to which Everett says, “No I didn’t.” Virgil’s response, “No he didn’t.” It’s a fantastic moment and it speaks to the heart of the relationship between the two men.

If there is a flaw to the film it would have to be in the casting of Jeremy Irons, not because he is bad in the role, but because his highly distinguishable English accent just can’t be hidden in that gruff American accent he is trying to pull off. Of course this is a nit-picky criticism and it only had a minor affect on my opinion of the film as a whole, but those that have enjoyed Irons over the years are sure to take notice. Zellweger is also something of a distraction when you take into account her squinted prune face, but her ability to act continues to outweigh her sourpuss appearance.

Appaloosa is a film that isn’t going to wow audiences with gun play, even though people do get shot. It’s not a fast paced flick through the dusty Old West, it’s slow and concentrates on its characters. Appaloosa is more of a dialogue driven Western than I think I have ever seen, and that itself may be an exaggeration as just as much is said between Virgil and Everett in a glance as it is in words. I can’t say I was overwhelmingly won over by this film, but I did enjoy it quite a bit. For a western it felt unique and fresh and that is a hard thing to do considering the genre’s star-studded history.