Note: In the following joint DVD review, both John and Chris provide their opinions of the film, with John also writing up the Video, Audio, Extras, and Parting Thoughts.
The Film According to John:
Movie fans have had a love affair with the Western almost since the beginning of motion pictures. I live near Niles Canyon where pre-Hollywood filmmakers shot many an old-time Western in the early days of the twentieth century. The Western started, though, as mostly a novelty and then a juvenile entertainment. It grew up in the late 1930s and reached maturity in the early 1950s with films like "Stagecoach," "Red River," "Shane," and "High Noon." In the 50s and 60s it enjoyed enormous popularity in movie theaters and on TV, falling out of favor, perhaps from overexposure, by the 1970s. Today, we get only a smattering of Westerns, so when an occasional good one like "Appaloosa" comes along, it's cause for celebration.
Ed Harris co-wrote, co-produced, directed, and stars in 2008's "Appaloosa," a story he and co-writer Robert Knott based on a novel by Robert B. Parker. So blame Harris for anything that might have gone wrong, and praise him for everything that went right. On the one hand he made an old-fashioned Western with a classic, straight-ahead Western narrative, stalwart Western heroes, and sweeping Western panoramas; on the other hand he included a buddy-movie theme, a romantic quadrangle, a post 9/11 sensibility, and a touch of feminism. It's a deft combination for a movie that may go on too long, with a few too many dead spots and false endings, yet it's a combination that provides enough variety to keep the heart, mind, and adrenaline on alert.
"Slow walkin' Jones,
Slow talkin' Jones,
Along came long, lean, lanky Jones."
As long ago as 1959 the Coasters were parodying the conventional Western movie hero embodied by such ironic Hollywood actors as Gary Cooper and Randolph Scott. Ed Harris no doubt had them in mind when he created gunslinger Virgil Cole, the character he plays in the film. No doubt, too, he liked the name "Appaloosa" for the small, fictional, Southwestern town that serves as the movie's setting in 1882 because it helps viewers associate the movie's characters with the hardy breed of riding horse of that name. Harris and his fellow filmmakers are missing no bets on this one.
Harris's Virgil Cole is a knight-errant, a wandering do-gooder in search of high adventure, righting wrongs, and living dangerously. In Cole's case, he is a hired gun, a peacekeeper called in to clean up hooligan-infested towns. "It's what we do." Such men probably did exist. People say that Wyatt Earp and his brothers cleaned up Dodge City and Tombstone; other folks say it's mostly myth invented by the Earps. Yet according to the movies, the West was practically overrun with such heroes, from Bronco Billy Anderson to Tom Mix; from Gene Autry to Roy Rogers; from John Wayne to Clint Eastwood. Harris's Cole follows a time-honored tradition.
Another Western component Harris adheres to is the sidekick. Until the buddy movie arrived, the hero's sidekick was usually of the comical variety. Think of Gabby Hayes, Smiley Burnette, Pat Buttram, Fuzzy Knight, Pat Brady, Andy Devine, and the like. Then came "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" to give sidekicks an equal standing with the hero. In "Appaloosa" Cole's best friend and business partner is Everett Hitch, played by Viggo Mortensen. Although neither of these actors is among those you might think of as typically "Western" movie stars, they work remarkably well together to create the rugged individualism and defenders of the "codes of the West" necessary to make us believe in their characters. They are colleagues and peers in everything they do, with only Hitch's wider vocabulary generating some deliberate humor along the way. Indeed, they and their camaraderie are the best parts of the show, which is why, I suppose, Harris chose to film them almost always together during the movie.
And it wouldn't be a genuine Western without a dastardly villain, in this case Jeremy Irons as Randall Bragg, as no-good a varmint as ever crept along the desert floor. Bragg is a rancher who owns most of the land and most of the people around the town of Appaloosa, and accordingly he thinks he can get away with anything. How evil is he? When a couple of his hired hands murder a man and his wife in town and the Marshal and two deputies ride out to Bragg's ranch to arrest them, Bragg shoots the lawmen dead, no questions asked. Besides, Jeremy Irons is British. How evil is that for a movie villain!
Nevertheless, it's the film's nontraditional factors that help set it apart. The first is its obvious correlation to post 9/11. When the town can no longer stand Bragg's nefarious tactics, the town fathers hire Cole and Hitch to bring law and order to the place. But there's a catch: Cole and Hitch demand complete authority to do whatever they want to accomplish the deed without fear of recrimination. One cannot help but think of America's Patriot Act, which many people feel hands over too much power (interrogation, surveillance, declarations of war, etc.) to the President, without proper supervision.
The other nontraditional component is the movie's treatment of women, in this case embodied by the character of Mrs. Allison French, played by Renee Zellweger. French is a widowed lady who steps off the train in Appaloosa and into the personal lives of the main characters. But she's not a archetypal Western woman. She's not the local schoolteacher or the mayor's daughter. She's not even the saloon keeper or the dance-hall girl. When she first arrives in town, Cole asks her the inevitable question: Is she a whore? That was, after all, a common occupation for unmarried females in the Old West. No, she says; she's simply a lady who has come to Appaloosa to live.
Zellweger's character is, in fact, the only serious question mark in the film. Unlike Cole and Hitch, whose loyalty to one another is indisputable, French's loyalties are always in doubt. Indeed, her character's behavior is sometimes so bizarre, it strains credibility. What's more, we never learn why she chose to stop and take up residence in the woebegone little outpost of Appaloosa in the first place. How much sense does that make without ulterior motives?
Lastly, I should mention that the film comes with an R rating for "violence and language." This is not to say, however, that the film is violent or coarse. While these things certainly exist in the story, Harris, co-screenwriter and producer Robert Knott, editor Kathryn Himoff, director of photography Dean Semler, and composer Jeff Beal have produced something closer to a "slow walkin', slow talkin'" introspective drama than a customary shoot-em-up. "Appaloosa" is more of a lyrical Western ballad than a raucous hoedown.
John's film rating: 7/10
The Film According to Chris:
The Western lends itself more readily to allegory than most genres, and it's easy to read many agendas into even the most straightforward oater. But intentional or not, some of the parallels between "Appaloosa" and the current American political climate are quite striking.
Virgil Cole (Ed Harris) and his deputy Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen) ride into the town of Appaloosa. The local power brokers are shopping for a new Marshal to investigate the murder of the previous officeholder and to protect them from the tyranny of prime suspect and all-around baddie Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons, channeling Daniel Plainview.)
Cole is happy to take the job, but only if the town elders sign a contract naming him the town's one and only Decider. The ink hasn't even dried on the hurriedly-signed Patriot Act before the newly empowered executive branch of Appaloosa gets down to the business of executing three of Bragg's men who picked the wrong day to kick up a ruckus in the saloon.
Based on a novel by Robert B. Parker, "Appaloosa" is built out of shopworn Western plot elements like the ones mentioned above. In addition to the new marshal and his faithful deputy, we get the usual collection of bartenders and whores, harrowing train rides, and gunslingers vying for the title of fastest draw in the West. Harris, who also directs, peppers his landscape with direct and indirect homages to a host of familiar films such as "Rio Bravo," "Pale Rider," and others; the outhouse sequence from "Unforgiven" is practically reproduced here.
Watching Ed Harris strut down a dusty Western street in his natty suit and black cowboy hat inevitably brings up memories of his starring turn in Alex Cox's acidic Western satire "Walker" in which Harris plays a psychopathic soldier masquerading as an American patriot. Virgil Cole isn't nearly as deranged as William Walker, but he's an authoritarian with a violent streak that stems from deep-seated neuroses.
Chief among these is his inability to deal with women. This is rarely an issue in his macho-man universe where all he needs is his gun and his deputy. Things change, however, when the very classy and very available Mrs. Alison "Allie" French (Renée Zelwegger) steps off the train one day. Virgil impresses her by proving that he's the head stallion in the herd, and can provide her with shelter and work with the snap of a finger. But his gracelessness leads him to ask her bluntly "Are you a whore?" because he can't imagine what else a single woman in the West might be doing.
Allie's abrupt introduction drastically alters the course of the story. A buddy film morphs into a love triangle that is heated on all sides. In one of the script's sharpest moments, Everett fends off an inappropriately amorous Allie by observing that "You're with Virgil… and so am I."
The relationship between Virgil and Everett is the real crux of the narrative. You don't need to read a homosexual subtext into their relationship to understand that both men desperately long for each other's approval. Everett is educated and erudite, and Virgil constantly reads in an effort to match his deputy's vocabulary, often falling just short of finding the right word for the occasion. Meanwhile, Everett works hard to be as skilled a gunslinger as Virgil but he fails because he's got feelings and "feelings get you killed." Everett works hard to be as flinty as his mentor, with mixed results that lead to an unexpected ending.
There would be no narrative tension if Virgil and Everett's relationship didn't get tested, but it's unfortunate that Renée Zelwegger is called on to do the dirty work. Zelwegger is as woefully miscast here as she was in the period piece "Cold Mountain." Her Allie is a mousy, irritating creature who tries the patience of not only both leading men but also the audience. Quite frankly, it's hard to see what either Virgil or Everett would want with her, especially since they've got each other.
This is Harris' second turn behind the camera after the overwrought and over-praised "Pollock" (2000), and it's a vast improvement. Harris doesn't strive for the lyricism of "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" or the action-flick hokiness of the Crowe-Bale "3:10 to Yuma." "Appaloosa" is a no-nonsense Western that covers familiar territory, but does so with a balance of skepticism and occasional humor that provides a modern gloss without veering into revisionist territory which has, by now, become the standard approach to the Western genre.
Harris is also impressive in front of the camera and is more than matched by the infinitely malleable Mortensen who proves once more his ability to disappear into any role in any genre in any time period. Irons is enjoyably hammy as the villain, while James Gammons and Timothy Spall shine in the far-too-few scenes they are given.
"Appaloosa" doesn't reinvent the Western, and thank goodness for that. Neither Virgil Cole nor Everett Hitch will take their place in the Western pantheon of great characters, but both are quite pleasant companions for a few hours. The film's occasionally corny humor is endearing, and the action scenes are efficiently staged without a hint of ostentation; no slow-mo Peckinpah style ballets here. In short, Harris has crafted a rock solid Western with no desperate need to turn it into something "important." And unlike some recent genre efforts, the film gracefully ends well before it has worn out its welcome.
Chris's film rating: 7/10
The disc offers the film in a 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation and a 1.33:1 pan-and-scan rendering, said to "fit your screen" (if you have a standard-sized, 1.33:1-ratio television). Obviously, I chose to watch in widescreen, where I found the colors quite realistic, the image ultraclean, and Dean Semler's cinematography appropriately expansive, the Western landscapes glowing in a natural brilliance. Although I found no obvious signs of edge enhancement or postproduction filtering, I did, however, notice some occasional moments of rather soft detailing and instances of line flutter and jaggies. So it's decent standard-def video but not the best it could be.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio does a fine job with the front speakers but very little with the surrounds. It does a commendable job reproducing Jeff Beal's soundtrack music, which is subtle yet carries the film along well, underlining key plot and character developments without drawing undue attention to itself. Because the audio delivers the music along with the dialogue mainly through the front channels, though, don't expect much musical ambience. The frequency and dynamic responses also seem slightly restricted, perhaps to complement the laid-back style of the whole movie.
There is nothing fancy in terms of bonus materials, just the essentials, which are, nonetheless, worthwhile and informative. First up we have an audio commentary by Ed Harris and Robert Knott. Both men appear to be enjoying the film as they watch it again, and both men are as laconic as the characters in the story. Next up we get four featurettes: "Bringing the Characters of Appaloosa to Life" is about seven minutes long and includes comments from the stars and filmmakers; "Historic Accuracy of Appaloosa" is some ten minutes on getting the details of the costumes, props, and settings right; "The Town of Appaloosa" is around five minutes on the unique personality of the Western town; and "Dean Semler's Return to the Western" is a five-minute segment on the man who photographed such genre films as "Young Guns," "Dances with Wolves," and "The Alamo." Then we get six deleted scenes with optional commentary by Harris and Knott that total about twelve minutes.
The extras conclude with twenty-seven scene selections; trailers at start-up; English as the only spoken language; Spanish subtitles; English captions for the hearing impaired; and access to a digital copy of the film for Windows media only, not compatible with Apple Macintosh or iPod devices.
"Appaloosa" is the kind of film that may not win many awards nor go down as a classic but should keep fans of traditional Westerns and fans of psychological character dramas equally happy, unless a person feels that there's too much of one or the other element in the film. Personally, I would have scrapped a few minutes of the intellectual by-play and added a little more action, but that's just me.