WRITTEN BY Robert Knott and Ed Harris
DIRECTED BY Ed Harris
STARRING Viggo Mortensen, Ed Harris, Renée Zellweger, Jeremy Irons, Timothy Spall
In most movie westerns, an appaloosa is a horse. But the title of his new revisionist oater, Ed Harris’ first outing in the director’s chair since Pollock, refers to a town where, as one wag at last week’s dull Toronto International Film Festival observed, “men are men and women are … Renée Zellweger.” It went over with a thud there, but in retrospect, considering all the pretentious bores surrounding it, it’s beginning to look good.
I doubt if Appaloosa would have appealed to John Ford. It’s got too much exaggeration and restraint, in equal doses, to fit neatly into the master’s carefully plotted, predictable and noisy epic narratives. But although it’s more Clint Eastwood than John Ford, the word “revisionist” might be the wrong adjective. A lot of it reflects the Freudian angst of The Unforgiven, with battered heroes in saddles and spurs able to take on deadly gangs of demented thieves and rustlers at the firing of a pistol, yet as nervous and unhinged in the sheets as horny toads in a mayonnaise jar. But part of it is old-fashioned—the cowboys are too noble for their own good, the villains are scoundrels and killers and rats who talk with guns instead of words, and there are rampaging Indians, too. Ed Harris reunites with Viggo Mortensen, his co-star in A History of Violence, and the chemistry is easygoing and understated. But he should have left the direction to someone else. His action sequences are a mess, and he never finds a comfortable way to work Ms. Zellweger into the plot. She’s just an apple-cheeked wedge between two saddle bums who would be much happier alone together finding a home on the range.
Set in 1882 in a small mining community in New Mexico, the film centers on two buddies with badges who re-define male bonding. Virgil Cole (Mr. Harris) is the new marshal hired to save the town from a ruthless, rampaging rattlesnake named Bragg (Jeremy Irons, with a sagebrush accent that sometimes borders on Walter Brennan), whose gang has been holding the law-abiding citizens hostage, killing off their law enforcement officers, terrorizing their local saloon and raping their women. Virgil vows to stop the mayhem and restore order with the aid of his partner for a dozen years following the Civil War, a soft-spoken deputy named Everett Hitch (Mr. Mortensen). Hitch is a West Point graduate with education and refinement who is equally adept with a dictionary and an eight-gauge shotgun. Polite but lethal, Cole and Hitch are two hombres with a code of honor who make John Wayne look like a wuss until the arrival of a provocative, unconventional widow named Allison (Ms. Zellweger), who plays saloon piano and turns the plot into a destructive ménage à trois from which it never regains balance. This is a focused, fiery Susan Hayward role, played by a squinting Barbie doll (what is wrong with Ms. Zellweger’s eyes?) who never seems to see anything clearly. Until she shows up, Cole and Hitch wear their badges with character-driven friendship and humor, qualities unusual in westerns. They don’t even have to talk; they know each other so well they can think each other’s thoughts and finish each other’s sentences. Cole’s fists and Hitch’s vocabulary work in tandem, with Hitch supplying words like “disparaging” and “commiserate.” Things change when Cole becomes besotted with the widow and buys her a house. He believes that if you have feelings, you lose your perspective as a cold-blooded lawman, but when he finds himself picking out curtain fabrics and telling Hitch his estimation of a worthwhile woman is the way she chews her food and whether she takes a bath before bedtime, you know things are going downhill in a barrel. For a man whose experience with women has been limited to “squaws and whores,” the swift transition to domestic tranquility is never believable, but when Hitch discovers the widow’s true nature (no hothouse tea rose, this blushing widow) and keeps it from his friend, you believe it. This is really a love story between two Adams in buckskin, divided by Eve and her apple. You wait to see how long it takes before they get it. But first, they must deal with Bragg, who takes Allison captive and has a go at her himself (the widow has already put the moves on Hitch). And don’t forget about those pesky Indians, who tire of beads and blankets and start sending up smoke signals. … By the time one of the heroes rides into the sunset like Shane (no spoilers, please), you know he’s earned some peace, and so have you.
Despite an abundance of clichés borrowed from every western from Rio Bravo to High Noon, the script by Mr. Harris and Robert Knott, from a sagebrush saga by Robert B. Parker, is as surprisingly full of details as it is slow in pace. The cinematography depicting this parched, primarily drab landscape is uninspired, moving from standard close-ups to routine master shots with a predictability that never achieves a poetic patina. Some of the actors are absurdly out of place (Zellweger, Irons and walrus-faced Timothy Spall, whose British decorum is ridiculous amid the frontier cactus); others appear to be born in the saddle. Viggo steals the picture. His always fresh and relaxed expressions, with dark subtexts dancing just below the surface, never cease to astound me. The bond that ties him to Mr. Harris is also what wrenches them apart; one tries to hide his lack of education, the other tries to conceal his I.Q, and both men act rugged in their denial of their covert affection. There is also a nice bit by a brave young escaped gang member who turns the tables on Bragg and his outlaws by testifying against them in court; he’s played by newcomer Gabriel Marantz, who happens in real life to be the grandson of legendary movie musical dancers Marge and Gower Champion. Who else would tell you these things?