Film review by: Witney Seibold


          Boy. Ed Harris must really like cowboy movies. ‘Cause his cowboy movie, “Appaloosa,” that he wrote an’ also directed, is like every cowboy movie situation in the same cowboy movie. An’ there’s a lotta gunfights. An’ there’s a bad guy who kills an’ steals, an’ rules everyone in a small li’l western cowboy town. An’ there’s an unshakable friendship between two experience bounty-hunter cowboy guys. An’s that friendship is shaken a li’l bit, when the older guy starts dating this dress-wearing western cowboy lady. But the western cowboy lady is actually flirting an’ swimmin’ nekkid with other guys all the time, so the older guy is mad at her. An’ then there’s a big ol’ shootout in a small Mexican village. An’ there’s a train rescue. An’ a lotta horses. An’… an’…


            “Appaloosa” is so riddled with the clichés and traditional presentations of the western genre, that it nearly plays like a very wry satire of westerns. Not content to merely make a western, Harris seemed to want to make every western. He populates his film with readily recognizable types. Every line delivery feels less like natural dialogue of people living in New Mexico in 1850 and more like the careful reconstruction of all the westerns the cast has absorbed and studied from childhood up to that point. Theirs is a singing spittoon in this movie, for goodness’ sake. The bad guy even wears a black hat. It’s like an expressionist version of a western.


            The story: Virgil Cole (Harris) and Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen) are wandering bounty hunters who pull up in Appaloosa, NM. They heard that the local sheriff was just killed by Randal Bragg (Jeremy Irons), and that he’s likely to get away with it, as the townsfolk are too scared to testify against him, and his henchmen are too loyal. Appaloosa’s town council (including a very funny Timothy Spall) reluctantly agrees to hire Cole and Hitch as the new sheriff and deputy. They quickly set to work with quick shots and stern threats, and it’s not long before they’ve captured Bragg.


            The monkeywrench thrown into the plans of these two tough-as-nails-hard-spittin’-horse-ridin’ bounty hunters is Allison French (Renée Zellweger), prim schoolteacher who makes eyes at Cole, and convinces him to settle down from his life of endless wand’rin’. He agrees. Only, it turns out, she also makes eyes at just about any feller who looks like he might be in charge of something. When she is kidnapped by the bad guys (and giving away such plot details in a movie so bursting with clichés is no large transgression), it’s a matter of tough, reluctant chivalry that makes Cole go after her.


            Zellweger is horribly miscast. It’s hard to find a good role for her, and this one is certainly not one that matches her strengths at all. She is not the two-faced vamp that Allison was written to be. The role, hence, needed someone capable of playing vampy to the hilt. Virginia Madsen, perhaps. Or Mario Bello. Bello could have worked wonders with the role.


            “Appaloosa” is beautifully shot, well-acted, and even a bit engaging. It just rings a bit silly. Harris, and his co-screenwriter Robert Knott, seemed so determined to make a legit western, that they pushed the genre ever so slightly into self-parody. Rather than being a bold piece of neo-masculine reinvention, it was more a mildly ridiculous pastiche to every childhood cowboy matinee Harris attended. For much of the film, rather than being involved in what the characters were saying or doing, I was picturing an 8-year-old Harris, trekking out to the local moviehouse in Tenafly, NJ, wearing a little cowboy hat and plastic six-shooter, and sitting, excited and rapt, in front of the flickering screen, presenting to him his favorite cowboy serial.


            “Appaloosa” is a little boy fantasy all grown up. For those who shared the fantasy, or can at least recognize it, it will be a fun trip to the movies.



Published in: on October 15, 2008 at 6:38 pm  Leave a Comment  

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