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Monday, October 13, 2008


I left the theater after seeing Appaloosa with a bit of a chip on my shoulder.

The premise has been seen before; a town in the middle of New Mexico Territory being harassed by a lawless rancher in the countryside. His name is Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons), and he allegedly killed the former town marshall and his two deputies. The three most affluent citizens in the area come together and decide to hire a couple of gunslingers who travel around enforcing the law for "folks that can't shoot." Not surprisingly, the leader of this spineless trio of "gentlemen" is none other than Timothy Spall, playing the same character he played in Sweeney Todd (but this time without warts and with a nicer disposition).

Enter writer/director Ed Harris as bad ass Virgil Cole and his sidekick Everett Hitch (a superbly jaded Viggo Mortensen). The first scene is a perfectly executed one-sided conversation that entails Spall and co trying and failing miserably to hold on to some power instead of handing over complete control of the town to Cole and Hitch (who insist that its a must in order to make everything that is going to happen legal). The audience gets a real treat with the dialogue of this scene, which nicely wraps with the duo kicking some Bragg-minion ass without even trying. This sudden defiance of the boss's men irritates Bragg and sets in motion the rivalry and personal vendetta that constitutes the plot for the rest of the movie.

And what would a western be without some female interference? The next morning the train drops off one Allison French, a down on her luck lady played by Renee Zellweger just to fulfill this requirement. Predictably Ms. French does her fair share of interfering and messing around (literally and figuratively), getting involved with Virgil and taping into the loneliness that is Virgil's one real weakness. Between her and the entrance of two gun slinging professionals from Virgil's past, Appaloosa has all the pieces of a western it needs.

Now, this movie was pretty good. It had all the right stuff: great characters, a fun script, excellent actors. As characters, Virgil Cole (played by writer and director Ed Harris) and his deputy Everett Hitch (a perfectly jaded Viggo Mortensen) are the embodiment of the gun slinging bad ass that every good Western has, yet the best part is how they manage to fulfill these requirements without coming across as unoriginal or cookie cutter.

These two gunslingers carry themselves in a way that makes them equals only to each other, taking the whole cowboy buddy genre to a new level of awesome. Their conversations in particular bring the audience into the film. It doesn't matter what the two are discussing. Maybe it's Virgil's tragically unfaithful woman Allie - "Do you think she loves you? Yes, I really do. It's just unfortunate that she has to f**k the bull stallion in every herd." Or, following a shootout between 4 of the best gun men in the country - "That was quick...(pain filled gasp)...Well yea, everyone could shoot."

It was easy to see right from the beginning of the film that the script and the characters would be the bearers of the entertainment. The fancy effects and gun fights were all secondary. Truth be told, I even liked the gun fights in this movie more for their brief, executioner style. No fight lasted more than 10 seconds and most of the characters were much more willing to use fists and gun butts to make a point, which is much closer to the actuality of how cowboys threw down than Hollywood's 15 minute, endless bullet supply barrages.

I was thoroughly impressed by the aesthetic of everything, particularly Harris' characters and the motivations of their actions. The whole film has a pervasive sense of cause and affect. Audiences don't have to make that "movie" jump to see the forces moving the pieces. Emotion drives this movie in the same way that it drives real people, which is exactly what the tagline foreshadows and promises (Feelings get you killed).

Why then, you ask, did I leave the theater with a chip on my shoulder? Because this movie was pretty good but it could have been great. And when I say great, I mean one of the best westerns of all time - certainly in the last 30 years. I left the theater feeling about this film the way a parent must feel when their rather intelligent and gifted child barely manages to graduate highschool and squeeze into college - what a shame that it didn't reach its full potential.

The biggest failing that this movie runs into is that it doesn't maximize; the plot is resolved but the characters aren't. Renee Zellweger's character is intensely annoying and doesn't become anything more than a convenient piece of the plot until a good 45 minutes into the movie, and even then its hard to really feel her. The avenues that would make her a compelling character are presented but never investigated and on a whole she leaves a lot to be desired. I'm sure other critics will agree when they say that Zellweger had absolutely no chemistry with either Harris or Mortensen. Which is unfortunate because a lot of attention is placed on her relationship with Harris' character. So much so that it almost eclipses the more important relationship between Virgil and Everett, which is the true masterpiece of the script and the real key to the movie. That however, is something that has to be seen to be understood.

In the end Appaloosa will leave you feeling the same way that I felt. That isn't to say that this movie is not worth your time - far from it. The dialogue is truly great; you will laugh at the comments that Everett and Virgil make over the heads of the other characters and high five your friends when one of them says something particularly supreme. There are multiple times where the calm, calculated manner of violence that the two main characters favor will ellicit envy and respect from you. My personal favorites are the way that Cole and Hitch both reload their guns right after they shoot them and the way that Hitch carries his 8 gauge shotgun around to everything like a silent scary friend. Bragg might even worm his way into your good graces with some of his better scenes. Just don't be surprised when the end credits roll and you die a little on the inside for the lost potential.
3 stars

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Wow, well done sir; this was exceptionally well-written, informative, thoughtful and entertaining to read. Barring a few little grammatical/spelling hiccups (its/it's, four instead of 4, tapping instead of taping...) this was professional grade criticism. Especially nice bookending with the chip on the shoulder and good job fitting it into the overall history of the genre.

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