For us lucky cowpokes that live in Los Angeles and New York, we got a chance to take a look at Appaloosa before its wide release on October 3rd. The film was adapted for the screen by Ed Harris and Robert Knott based on the novel of the same name, written by Robert Parker. Harris also took on directorial duties, as well as staring as one of the films leads, the lawman-for-hire Virgil Cole. Joining Cole is his long serving Deputy and friend, Everett Hitch, an intelligent and soft-spoken man played with charm and subtlety by Viggo Mortensen.
Rounding out the all star cast are Renee Zellwegger as love interest Allison French, Jeremy Irons as the cold-hearted Randall Bragg, and Lance Henrickson as gun-for-hire Ring Shelton, of the infamous Shelton brothers. The story starts with Bragg gunning down a City Marshall and his deputies after they attempt to arrest him for a murder. Held in the grip of fear by these cowboys, who take what they want without paying and terrorize the town, the leaders of the city of Appaloosa hire on Virgil and Everett to bring order to the town. Literally minutes later, the two out of towners have made their presence known and put the screws to the Bragg gang. Soon, the arrival of a flirtatious woman, Miss French, draws the attention and care of Cole. Meanwhile, a turncoat from Bragg’s gang agrees to testify against him on the charges of murder, so Virgil and Everett make plans to take him in.
What follows are quick gunfights, emotional twists, questionable deals, and a battle between prideful men. Appaloosa delivers everything a Western aficionado could ask for, from beautiful scenery, majestic horses, and locomotives to shooting duels, witty banter, and honest characters. The primary strength of the film is an engaging script that flirts with humor, wit, violence, and the nature of men. The relationship between Miss French and the alpha males around her is interesting and frustrating, to both the audience and Virgil. Mortensen plays Hitch as the quintessential cowboy hero. He’s quiet, modest, honest, and deadly with a 10 gauge shotgun. Yet, in all his openness, he still reserves a secret here and there that are revealed at exactly the right moments in exactly the right ways.
Harris obviously deserves much of the credit, turning in a classic machismo infused “Top Dog” Lawman performance peppered with just enough insecurity to make him relatable. His playbook from the directors chair is genre perfect – clearly he’s done his homework and knows what type of film he’s making. The shot selection is wonderful, with the requisite number of establishing shots and pans across the beautiful countryside. Musically, Jeff Beal provides a rich, full score with a very notable string performance, and good horn accents. Beal and Harris even combine forces on two tracks, with Beal composing and Harris singing on “You’ll Never Leave My Heart” (which plays during the latter part of the credits) and “Ain’t Nothin Like a Friend.” All are available on the official soundtrack.
If there is a fault with me, it would be Renee Zellwegger. While she is given somewhat more depth than your average Western love interest, her depth makes her character somewhat unlikable and when you look at her, you’re seeing Renee Zellwegger, not Miss French. Still, that wasn’t nearly enough to stop my enjoyment of the film and by the latter half, I had started to believe her character much more. The other performances throughout the film are very strong – Mortensen outshines all and Irons, while given less to do, is none the less fully capable of domineering a scene with nothing more than a look.
Some modern audience goers may feel the pace of the movie is a touch slow, which one could say it is. Though, it is slow like a good Western can be. In capturing the real earnestness of the West, there are times when things go blisteringly fast and times when the duo simply sit and talk, as friends were apt to do before television and radio. The dialog between the two men is as sharp as a bowie knife and crisp like a frontier morning. Overall the movie is a very traditional Western with fast paced action, sharp dialog, and deep characters.
Like a good period piece, the real heart of the film lays within the heart of the men on screen. They run the gamut of emotions from pride to hubris to modesty and transition through them all. As the credits roll over beautiful still photographs, you have a real understanding of exactly who each character was and the type of man they’ll always be. This kind of movie deserves Oscar recognition, though its the kind of quiet performances, so dependent on subtleties, that it just may go unnoticed. Make sure you notice this film when it releases on October 3rd.