dir: Ed Harris
Ah, westerns. Not nearly enough of them are still being made. And, in some senses, as with musicals, X-Men films and anything made by Baz Luhrman, you could argue that there is no goddamn need to ever, ever make any more of them ever again.
The western, however, unlike the other examples cited, deserves to have a continued existence. It deserves to survive, and prosper as a genre filled with awe-inspiring scenery, people killing each other with guns, and the rugged individualism Americans like to think they’re all heirs to.
It’s the most quintessential of American genres. You can make the argument that virtually all cinema and all genres originate in America, considering the birthplace of the cinematic art form, but then you’d be being awfully pedantic, and no-one likes sleeping with awfully pedantic people. So let that be a warning to you.
Whatever the argument’s merits, the irony is that despite the ‘you’ve come a long way, baby’ that America has achieved as a country and in terms of civilisation, they still hunger to make and see films set in an era before everything was decided: before there were limits on anything, be it ambition, be it violence, or be it a complete lack of fences.
They hunger for the time when they were all free range, and maybe we do to. Personally, I have no hankering for the strapping on of guns, the crush of nuts on a horse’s saddle, or the killing of random people in saloons. Nor does that rugged individualism bullshit resonate with me either. I’m way too lazy, for one thing.
But I do love the ambiguous moral arguments, the heroes who are stone cold killers, and the villains who are almost indistinguishable from the heroes themselves. And I do love the scenery.
Appaloosa is set in those heady days of the 1880s, post Civil War, where civic structures were solidifying across the States. Lawmen were essentially mercenaries hired by rich townsfolk to come to their towns to kill their enemies. Our two protagonists: Virgil Cole (Ed Harris, who also directs), and Hitch (Viggo Mortensen), are two of these lawmen-for-hire. They are, I guess, good guys. They believe themselves to be the good guys, and act accordingly, by drafting regulations governing the town entirely to their liking.
The rich bastards running the town hire them not because they really care that someone near them needs to feel the harsh noose of justice for their crimes, but because they’re losing money. The villainous Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons) might have killed a bunch of guys, but the reason the town fathers want him dealt with is because his lackeys avail themselves of all the town's booze and whores without paying accordingly.
Instead of just killing him outright, since Cole and Hitch are the law, they have to contrive a way to get him to court without either being killed by him or by his numerous murderous henchmen. It’s harder than it sounds, and, in the end, nothing goes according to any sort of plan.
Adding another complication to the mix is the arrival of some strange and frightening oily woman called Mrs Allison French. Allison is played by a greasy, waxwork figurine of Renee Zellweger, presumably because they either couldn’t afford the original Renee Zellweger, or because Zellweger was busy healing orphans in the Congo or something equally noble and unlikely.
How odd she looks in this I can barely express or encapsulate. Her character seems, at least to me, to be a tad out of reach, but it could be because she’s playing such a unique character in the Western genre.
There’s only two female archetypes in the western: they’re either the hardy prairie wife so virtuous and hard working that they make the saints look like the scum that they are, or prostitutes. They can have hearts of gold or coal, but that’s their range in its entirety.
Zellweger’s character isn’t that new, or radical, but it’s at least an unusual character, even if she is miscast in the role. Her character of Mrs French is interested in only one thing, which is survival. But overlayed on top of that she’s ever changing in her affections, linking her survival to being with whoever is the toughest hombre in the town.
Her allegiances can shift almost instantaneously, and in a different flick it’d be to her detriment. But Vole and Hitch, the ones most put out by her ‘pragmatism’, are also revisionist heroes, in that they respect her motivations enough, and appreciate her vulnerability as an unattached woman in the wild west enough that they accept her as just as she is.
Noble guys, these chaps. John Wayne would have shot the bitch between the eyes.
And I’m not saying that would have been the right thing to do. As with plenty of westerns, the real main relationship of any worth is between the men of the film. Cole and Hitch have been together so long they defer to each other over anyone else, and they’ve probably been everything except physical intimates for so long that the other relationships become secondary. At a point where Zellweger is trying to mash her Zellwegerian face against the rugged manliness of Viggo Mortensen’s chiselled and heroic features, Hitch is telling her than they’re ain’t anything ever going to happen betwixt them, since Allison is with Cole, and Hitch is with Cole. And he repeats it a few times for good measure, in case we didn’t get it.
So for all of Zellweger strangely over-affectionate behaviour, we can see that the two chaps aren’t ever going to feel threatened by what she does, since their deep and abiding love for each other transcends all.
For all of its bedrock foundations, there is complexity in how they relate. Cole often tries to express himself and fails, needing Hitch to jump in with the word he’s trying to use in the right context. And despite being what he thinks is an honourable man, Cole’s temper unleashed turns him into a berserker, which only Hitch can calm him down from when he Hulks out and starts smashing people’s heads in for no good reason.
That core of their relationship, along with the quality of the acting, the pretty cinematography and the decent score, is both the strongest and weakest part of the flick, because whilst it sustains most of the plot, it also leads to an ending I can’t describe as anything less than sudden and anticlimactic.
Despite all the derring-do and killin’ along the way, the film ends up being resolved in a neat little package so neat and package-like that it’s a tad insulting to the intelligence. All I’ll say further about the ending is that if it had been that easy, they should have done it in the first ten minutes of the flick, and then told some other story about shooting Indians, the railways or discovering oil or about why Zellweger’s face never moved.
But I’m being petty. There may have been some anachronistic elements in the production and script, and, since Ed Harris stars and directs, there’s a bit of a vanity project feel to the proceedings. None of that managed to sink the flick in my estimation, and it’s a testament to Harris that he gives the stronger role to Viggo.
Oh Viggo…(sighs). He’s as dependably reliable in this as he is in everything he does, and he’s so dreamy…
Uh, yes. It’s a decent enough movie. It’s not great, but it’ll do, Zellweger, it’ll do.
7 times Renee Zellweger has never looked so much like a parody of a human being thanks to botox out of 10
“We can't have our law officers beatin' people half to death for no reason.” – you clearly haven’t met any Victorian cops then, chappie, Appaloosa.