Westerns may once have ruled the screen, but at least since Heaven’s Gate, and arguably earlier, the genre is generally considered moribund. From time to time there is a successful Western, resulting in a flurry of films attempting to duplicate that success, but overall the day of the Western is past.
Most recent Westerns are either revisionist (always publicized as a radical new event, as if the genre’s constant revisions since at least the 1950s went unnoticed) or attempts to return to the tried-and-true formulas of the past, updated only as much as is considered necessary for modern tastes.
Appaloosa, isn’t quite either of these approaches. The film gives us a lived-in West with somewhat ambiguous heroes, but the focus is not on revising the old clichés as in films like Unforgiven. The action is carefully doled out, unlike in high-octane “shoot ’em ups” like the recent remake of 3:10 to Yuma. In some ways the film is fairly traditional, with strong quiet men who adhere to a code of honor running up against a snake of a crooked rancher, but the film defies expectations and avoids becoming predictable.
Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen, Hidalgo), our narrator, is a Civil and Indian War veteran and the partner of Virgil Coe (Ed Harris, Creepshow, who also directs, produces and co-writes) a Sheriff-for-Hire. The men are essentially hired gunmen, who come to town, enforce laws that Coe makes, and eventually kill or run trouble out-of-town whomever is causing trouble. In Appaloosa, the trouble maker is Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons, The French Lieutenant’s Woman), a rancher whose men overrun the town and who the fathers suspect has murdered the last Sheriff, Bell. Coe knew and respected the man, and so the pair take on the job.
Hitch and Coe’s operation runs smoothly except for a few bumps. A strange woman arrives in town, Mrs. French (Renée Zellweger, Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The New Generation). She is, contrary to expectations, a widow, and not a school marm or prostitute. As these are the only options they’ve previously encountered, she intrigues both men. After Hitch and Coe manage to find a witness against Bragg and bring him to trial, the second bump, the Shelton brothers, Ring (Lance Henriksen, Near Dark) and Mackie, fellow gunmen that Coe considers at least his equal, arrives in town.
The outline above sounds very straightforward, but it leaves out the most interesting parts. The film takes some very standard Western situations, and changes them just enough to keep things interesting and different without abandoning the genre. The plot contains many standard elements-the new Sheriff who goes up against the powerful land owner, keeping a prisoner in jail awaiting trial while his men wait for their chance to bust him out, a chase to rescue a woman kidnapped by bad men, the friendship of two men tested by a woman-but it manages to confound expectations. Several times the film reaches what would be the climax in a different movie, but keeps right on going.
There are gun fights where we expect them, but they are extremely quick and efficient. A friend pointed out that gun fights this clean at the distances fired is not terribly realistic, which may be true, but the film is not after complete truth. The point is that these are men (with the possible exception of some of Bragg’s goons) who live with death and are extremely good at dealing it out. If nothing else, the film itself points out the unusual nature when Hitch says as much to Coe after one particularly fast gunfight, and Coe responds “Well, everyone could shoot.” There are none of the flourishes of the Spaghetti Western, little of the drawn out show downs of older Westerns, and none of the modern style of shakey-cam, hyper stylized gun play-here the gun fights come up quickly and end quickly, which isn’t to say they don’t have any impact or suspense. Tension builds and then is quickly diffused in rapid, violent bursts.
The characters are similarly unpredictable, and not exactly what they seem when they are first introduced. The actors are mostly up to the challenge. Mortensen is excellent as the quiet and loyal but observant Hitch. Harris’s more straight-forward Coe is immensely fun to watch, especially his habit of using Hitch as a thesaurus and dictionary. Irons is good, but not great as Bragg; it’s always a pleasure to see Henriksen, though his part is relatively small. The only weak performance is Zellweger’s, though as the film goes on and we learn more about her character, she feels less out-of-place (and truth be told I am not a fan of the actress, so perhaps this is more my issue than the film’s).
The film looks beautiful, with suitably mythic scenes in the great outdoors and a lived in look that, to a viewer not terribly knowledgeable of the time period, feels authentic. Small touches like the recoil pad on Hitch’s jacket (Hitch uses a massive 8-gauge shotgun) add an extra layer of detail to the film. Appaloosa works within Western tradition while standing just enough outside of it to give the viewer something different.