>> Fantastic Fest/AICN Secret Screening #2: Appaloosa

“Old-fashioned” is the first word that comes to mind when describing Ed Harris’s directorial sophomore effort, the new Western Appaloosa.  There’s no post-modern spin, no personal drama pretending to be a Western, or an action film disguised as a Western.  This is a plain and simple Hollywood Western, and it would feel like the product of a bygone era if it weren’t for a smattering of raw language.

After Appaloosa’s marshall and his men are killed by the villainous Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons), the town hires two new guns to keep the peace, Virgil Cole (Ed Harris) and Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen).  The private lives of the new marshall and his deputy are anything but peaceful after the arrival of Allison French (Renee Zellweger), an attention-starved widow with a wandering eye, who quickly chooses Virgil as her man.  A former ranch hand of Bragg’s turns him in for the murders, but Virgil and Everett are not prepared for Bragg’s power as they try to bring him to justice, nor are they prepared for how Allison’s sketchy commitment to Virgil will affect their lives.

Harris obviously has a love for Westerns from half a century ago, and this has the earmarks of a project in which everyone is as pleased as punch to be running around with six-shooters and cowboy hats and riding on horseback.  It’s an unexpectedly funny movie as well, which adds to the old-fashioned vibe.  The good-natured humor reminded me of television Westerns in particular, and I think it’s probably intentional.  Harris shoots his film a little flat, but its serviceable, and he never tries to re-invent the wheel here.

Zellweger and Irons are the weak links of the film.  Irons isn’t given enough of a character to make it his own, instead opting for Generic Western Villain, but affecting some kind of strange accent that is neither country twang nor British.  Zellweger doesn’t seem to fully understand her character, and is content to fall back on Zellwegerisms–the squinty smile for light moments, the pouty face for dramatic ones.  Allison is a difficult, complex role; one that requires a complete understanding of who she is, where she came from, and why she does what she does.  I don’t get the impression that Zellweger knows the answer to any of those questions.  Now, is that Zellweger’s fault or the fault of a rookie director who may have been too busy starring in his own film to step outside of the situation and work with Zellweger to perfect Allison as a character?

If Appaloosa were a restaurant instead of a movie, there is no doubt in my mind it would be a Cracker Barrel–a reliable place to find diversion with your grandparents, while taking in a suprisingly comforting, intentionally retro atmosphere.  That may be the stupidest analogy I’ve ever used, but it’s apt.  Appaloosa has all the dust, clip-clopping horses, and shootouts you’d expect from a Western, and delivers it with two pretty great lead actors and some hard-boiled dialogue.

7 on a 1 to 10 scale

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3 Comments

  1. One note – Pollock was his first film. This was his second 🙂

  2. Noted and fixed.

  3. The film went south for me when Zellweger showed up.


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