Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 10/02/08 10:02:05

"Well, look what the train brought in."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

SCREENED AT THE 2008 BOSTON FILM FESTIVAL: It strikes me that westerns, as a type of film, are in about the same place science fiction was a few decades ago: They don't fit on a studio's balance sheet very well (kind of expensive to do right, not enough of an audience to do often), so only one or two make their ways to the multiplexes each year. There, they have the unenviable task of satisfying the fan who has been waiting for this annual treat and justifying their existence to the moviegoer who sees it as a simplistic genre that people grow out of.

Appaloosa is a good western that, at least initially, is unfairly dragged down by the pressure placed upon every new western to be exceptional. As the film opens and gets moving, one might wonder "why this movie? What is it about Appaloosa that motivated producers to invest in the production?" It seems to be made of standard parts: The old marshal is killed by villainous rancher Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons) and his men; the town of Appaloosa hires a pair of freelance peacekeepers to bring them to justice. New sheriff Virgil Cole (Ed Harris) and his deputy Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen) are certainly good with their guns, although they're uncomfortably authoritarian, enforcing the law because that pays better than breaking it - although that seems to change when widow Allison French (Renee Zellwegger) comes to town.

That's when some interesting things start happening. She gravitates toward Virgil, even though Everett has also shown interest. We see Virgil snap, seemingly out of nowhere, and how much he needs Everett around to keep him on an even keel. And then, when Bragg's trial does not put an end to things, we see what really makes Allison tick.

It is what goes on between Virgil, Everett, and Allison that forms the heart of the movie, and makes it a fine example of the western. Robert Parker, who wrote the original novel, described it as a love story between two heterosexual men, and though that description may earn some snickers, it's a fair one. Virgil and Everett are entangled by respect and loyalty rather than any kind of romantic or sexual attraction, but we see how well they function together, and how in some ways they need each other, with Everett able to rein Virgil in and Virgil supplying Everett with direction.

Then you bring Allison into the picture, and while on one level she is the woman who throws a monkey wrench into the men's unsworn brotherhood, she also embodies what I find to be the basic theme of the western: Civilized people in an environment that is, effectively, lawless. Allison keenly recognizes that she's in a world where might often makes right and a woman on her own doesn't have many options. The ones she chooses to exercise are not necessarily admirable - though they're not the obvious, simple ones you might initially suspect - but they're understandable and make her an interesting figure beyond how she affects the plot.

It's a nice performance by Renee Zellweger: She hits on a lot of familiar characteristics of women in westerns - the likable ones, the widows who probably belong someplace finer - and manages to make Allison somewhat sympathetic while still being manipulative. Ed Harris is playing a rather simpler character, and what he's doing doesn't look like much at first, just grunting out tough-guy dialog (though he does that very well indeed). It's not until Allison starts to get in Virgil's head that we see a whole lot in the way of nuance, and even then, the emphasis is on how Virgil is at heart a simple man, not made for this sort of confusion. Viggo Mortensen gets to do more from the beginning - Everett's our narrator, and though he isn't much more complicated than Virgil, he's smarter, and even though he doesn't say much, we can always see him assessing the situation.

With the main characters going on, the other actors seem almost underused: The likes of James Gammon and Timothy Spall are, quite frankly, overkill as the merchants who hire Virgil and Everett. It's a pleasure to see Lance Henriksen show up midway through, though, as a hired gun who may be Cole's equal but doesn't feel a particular need to brag about it; he's made for parts like this. Jeremy Irons is a villain whom I'd like to have seen as a more active participant - he makes a good chief thug and manages to seem even more sadistic when he steps away from simple violence.

In addition to starring, Ed Harris co-wrote on the screenplay and directs. He does a nice job of portraying how isolated the various outposts in the west were, and how a Randall Bragg or a Virgil Cole can become an autocrat within the borders of the United States. For all that the film is about the relationships between Virgil, Everett, and Allison, Harris gives us a few nice gunfights - mostly of the quick-draw variety, but a couple are more substantial.

This is clearly a labor of love for Ed Harris - heck, he even performs one of the songs over the end credits. He's one of the most dependably solid actors out there, so it's hardly any surprise that he does good work behind the camera as well.

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