Dec 15, 2009

Appaloosa: A Review

Starring: Ed Harris, Viggo Mortensen, Renee Zellweger, Jeremy Irons, Peter Pettigrew, The Coach from 'Major League'.

Directed by: Ed Harris

Overall: ***1/2

Most crime movies are westerns disguised as crime movies. Elmore Leonard wrote crime novels that were more or less westerns dressed up with snarky dialogue and showdowns set in Detroit instead of Dodge City. Robert B. Parker, as it were, writes westerns disguised as crime novels. Well, that's not necessarily true, as 'Appaloosa' is about as bare-bones a movie can be (based on Parker's novel). But the relationship between Harris's and Zellweger's characters is more reminiscent of Humphrey Bogart movies than John Wayne ones. In fact, all of the relationships between characters are reminiscent of crime flicks than of their dirtier, horse-filled counterparts. The "sheriff", Virgil Cole (played excellently by Harris), has a buddy-cop banter with his "deputy", Everett Hitch (Mortensen). Virgil, like a husband stumped by the weekly crossword at the breakfast table, can always count on his erstwhile partner Hitch to deliver a word that's just out of reach for him. Similarly, Hitch is unfaltering in his admiration for the other half of the gun-wielding duo, supplying the other on-screen characters with a steady stream of compliments about the man's better qualities. In that respect, the movie tries to balance the (crime)western and the love story between Virgil and Hitch, but it is often disrupted by the appearance of Ally (Zellweger's character and Virgil's ostensible love interest).

Westerns are typically movies in which men are men and women wash the dishes. 'Unforgiven', Clint Eastwood's superb revisionist tale, ushered in a sort-of new era in the Western, leading up to the 00s. What we have seen recently is a spate of films influenced by books influenced by movies. It's a post-revisionist, post-western world we live in, in which the dynamic in the films is slowly trying to be placed gently in the pre-revisionist cradle, for people who yearn for John Wayne.

However, 'Appaloosa' is just proof that there has been too much intermingling between genres for us to return to simple, unironic storytelling. While the sexual charge between lonely men in westerns pre-1966 was only implied, now it is either overt or too blunt to miss. It's as though we cannot tell a western with a straight face anymore (no pun intended). If you don't believe me, please - pretty please - watch 'Appaloosa'. At one point, Everett, in chiding Ally, basically says, "You and Virgil are together, and so are Virgil and I. We are all together." If there had been no guns and halfway through the film it were revealed that Everett was a woman, no one paying attention would have been surprised.

And it's not as though I've tried to lay the sexual framework onto the movie. It's either deliberately there, the director (Harris) honestly does not see it, or else he is baiting the audience. I'd like to think it is a mixture of all three, since it's too there for anyone to miss it. Coming in, I had expected a straightforward, old school western, but I got so much more. Even though it is full of violence - often actually representative of the "misunderstood" silent type routine - and of action and brooding, the chemistry between the three main characters outweighs it all. It's not always intriguing - in fact, sometimes it's downright tedious - but it seems as though that was what Ed Harris was going for in the direction, so he gets extra points for effort there. It wasn't a straight-faced telling of the typical western, but it does maintain plenty of the genre's staples: kidnapping, damsels in distress, trains, "Injuns", gunfights, love triangles, long silences, horses, and, of course, funny mustaches.

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