Friday, October 03, 2008

Film Reviews: "Appaloosa"

By Roger Ebert
Chicago Sun-Times
October 2, 2008

"Appaloosa" started out making me feel the same as I did during the opening chapters of Larry McMurtry's "Lonesome Dove," and its TV miniseries. At its center is a friendship of many years between two men who have seen a lot together and wish they had seen less. This has been called a Buddy Movie. Not at all. A buddy is someone you acquire largely through juxtaposition. A friend is someone you make over the years. Some friends know you better than you know yourself.

That would be true of Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen), who for years has been teamed up with Virgil Cole (Ed Harris). They make a living cleaning bad guys out of Western towns. Virgil wears a sheriff's badge, and Everett is his deputy, but essentially, they're hired killers. They perform this job with understated confidence, hair-trigger instincts, a quick draw and deadeye aim. They're hired by the town of Appaloosa to end a reign of terror under the evil rancher Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons).

So already you've got an A-list cast. Harris plays a man of few words, many of them pronounced incorrectly, and steel resolve. Mortensen is smarter than his boss, more observant, and knows to tactfully hold his tongue when he sees the sheriff making mistakes, as long as they're not fatal. Irons plays the rancher as one of those narrow-eyed snakes who is bad because, gosh darn it, he's good at it.

Then a lady comes into town on the stage. This is Allison French (Renee Zellweger), a widow, she says. No, she's hasn't come to Appaloosa to find work as a schoolmarm or a big-hearted whore (the two standard female occupations in Westerns). She plays the piano and the organ, and dresses like a big city lady in fancy frocks and cute bonnets. She inquires at the sheriff's office about where she might find respectable lodgings. Her budget is limited. She has one dollar.

Zellweger is powerfully fetching in this role. She wins the sheriff's heart in a split second, and he "explains" to the hotel clerk that Miss French will be staying there and will play the piano. Virgil Cole has practiced for a lifetime at avoiding the snares of females, but he's a goner. Everett looks at him quizzically. But you don't keep a friend if you criticize his women --too quickly, anyway. Is there anything about Alison to criticize? The movie has a ways to go.

Virgil and Everett reminded me immediately of Gus McCrae and Woodrow Call in "Lonesome Dove," not only in their long-practiced camaraderie, but also in their conversations about women. So smitten is Virgil that he abandons his tumbleweed ways and starts building a house for the widow. Meanwhile, Bragg sends three boys into town, who get themselves killed. A showdown approaches, viewed warily by the town leaders. Phil Olson (Timothy Spall) is their spokesman, and who better than Spall? He is the master of telegraphing subdued misgivings.

No more of the plot. What is seductive about "Appaloosa" is its easygoing rhythm. Yes, we know there will be a shoot-out; it can't be avoided. But there is also time for chicken dinners and hot pies and debates about the new curtains, and for Miss French to twinkle and charm and display canny survival instincts. What makes the movie absorbing is the way it harmonizes all the character strands and traits and weaves them into something more engaging than a mere 1-2-3 plot. I felt like I did in "Lonesome Dove" -- that there was a chair for me on the porch.

The film has been directed by Ed Harris and bears absolutely no similarity, as you might have anticipated, to his "Pollock" (2000), the story of an alcoholic abstract expressionist. Harris as a director allows the actors screen time to live. They're not always scurrying around to fulfill the requirements of the plot. They are people before the plot happens to them -- and afterward too, those who survive. He has something to say here about hard men of the Old West and their naive, shy, idolatry of "good" women.

Harris comes ready for the gunplay. He just doesn't think it's the whole point. The shootin' scenes are handled with economy. Everett observes that one shootout is over lickety-split, and Virgil tells him: "That's because we're good shots." At the end of the day, everything works out as I suppose it had to, and we're not all tied in emotional knots or existential dread. I know I want me another slice of that hot pie.

Cast & Credits
Virgil: Ed Harris
Everett: Viggo Mortensen
Allison: Renee Zellweger
Randall: Jeremy Irons
Phil: Timothy Spall
Ring: Lance Henriksen

Warner Bros./New Line Cinema present a film directed by Ed Harris. Written by Robert Knott and Harris. Based on the novel by Robert B. Parker. Running time: 115 minutes. Rated R (for violence and language). Opening today at local theaters.


By Lou Lumenick
New York Post
September 19, 2008

Viggo Mortensen and Ed Harris play lawmen pals in the Harris-directed old-school oater "Appaloosa."

Rating: 3 Stars (out of 4)

THERE is perhaps no genre as full of pitfalls for contemporary filmmakers as the Western.
Last year's crop were either pretentious ("The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford") or ramped up the violence to absurd excess (the remake of "3:10 to Yuma").

Ed Harris, though, directs the old-school Western "Appaloosa" in a refreshingly straightforward style.
It's as no-nonsense as his lead performance as Virgil Cole, a leathery gunfighter with nerves of steel. He is hired by the city of Appaloosa in the New Mexico Territory.

It's 1882, and city fathers (led by Timothy Spall) want the streets made safe for business after rancher Randall Brigg (Jeremy Irons in an intriguing bit of casting) has killed the marshal.

So they hire Virgil, who arrives with his longtime deputy Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen) and suspends the city's laws in favor of his own, much stricter ones.

Given that Harris bears more than a passing resemblance to a certain Republican presidential candidate, it looks for a spell like Harris and his co-screenwriter, Robert Knott, might be fixing to offer up a political allegory in this reverse twist on "High Noon."

Fortunately, Harris heads off in a more interesting direction in an adaptation that sticks close to a novel by Robert B. Parker, including much witty dialogue taken directly from the printed page.
Virgil and Everett are two of the more talkative Western heroes we've seen in a while, and their exact relationship is intriguing.

Everett tells us in narration that Virgil's contact with women has been limited to "whores and squaws." Indeed, the new marshal's motto is "feelings get you killed."

So Everett is possibly jealous, certainly bemused and finally concerned when a piano-playing widow named Allison French (Renée Zellweger, in her first tolerable performance since "Cold Mountain") arrives in Appaloosa and his smitten pal begins building a house for her.

Things come to a head as Virgil puts Randall on trial for murder and the widow is abducted.
Harris, whose only previous directorial effort was the vastly different "Pollock," has an abiding affection and affinity for the Western, paying homage to "Rio Bravo" among more obvious sources.

Beautifully photographed by Dean Semler, "Appaloosa" is the best Western since "Open Range" (2003) and shows there's still life in this most unfashionable of genres.


Running time: 115 minutes. Rated R (violence, profanity). At the E-Walk, the Lincoln Square, the Loews Village, others.


By Mike Mayo
The Washington Post
October 3, 2008

Compared with recent westerns, "Appaloosa" is less flashy than "3:10 to Yuma," and it lacks the Rabelaisian energy of HBO's late, lamented "Deadwood." Filled with dusty light, craggy facial features and broad landscapes, it's a solid story that honors the traditions of the genre as it reworks them.It's unashamedly old-school, but an off-beat, literate sense of humor keeps the action from becoming too weighty or self-absorbed.

The premise is familiar: Freelance lawmen Virgil Cole (Ed Harris) and Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen) go to the little town of Appaloosa in the New Mexico Territory in 1882 in search of work. Bad guy Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons) has just murdered the sheriff and two of his deputies. The frightened townspeople want things set right. After swift negotiations over the scope of their duties, Cole and Hitch take the job and go after Bragg's gang. Enter the widow Mrs. French (Renee Zellweger), who attracts both men.

No one needs to be a serious student of westerns or of buddy films to predict where the story is going. Part of it, anyway.

Ed Harris, who also directed, produced, co-wrote the screenplay and sang a song over the closing credits, has a sure touch with material that's more physically demanding than his directorial debut, "Pollock." He balances a few economically violent gunfights against domestic conflicts and other complications. Three big scenes set on a train, in a grove by a river and in a town square work well and build to satisfying surprises. Harris also seems comfortable and even show-offy with the Texas and New Mexico locations.

The film has nothing to do with 1966's "The Appaloosa," starring Marlon Brando. This one is based on crime writer Robert Parker's novel, and at times, Cole and Hitch sound like Spenser and Hawk in their modest self-congratulatory camaraderie. Still, the characters have a comfortable fit that's not likely to bother fans of westerns.

Harris and Mortensen may not have the combined star power to push "Appaloosa" to the level of popularity of last year's "3:10," but the film is every bit as enjoyable, and, for traditionalists, more measured.

Contains violence, strong language and brief nudity.

Movie Review

Appaloosa (2008)

Lorey Sebastian/Warner Brothers Pictures

Viggo Mortensen and Ed Harris in “Appaloosa,” directed by Mr. Harris.

Gunman Meets Widow. Trouble Starts.

The New York Times
Published: September 19, 2008

There are some recent movie westerns — “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” was last year’s notable example — that self-consciously address the mythology of the Old West, using the familiar features of the genre to map new territory on the borderland between history and legend. Like the expensive, prestigious A-westerns of the postwar era, these movies explicitly take up big questions about national identity, historical memory and the nature of justice.

Other films, meanwhile (like last year’s remake of “3:10 to Yuma”), try to recapture the lean, tense storytelling style of the old B-westerns. Those pictures, staples of the American moviegoer’s diet in the middle decades of the last century, approached the grand themes more modestly and obliquely, embedding them in deceptively simple yarns about men, horses and guns.

With its studiously picturesque wide-screen compositions and its stately, sober pacing, Ed Harris’s “Appaloosa,” based on a novel by Robert B. Parker, seems at first to aspire to the A-list. Thankfully, though, its gestures toward grandiosity are superficial and few.

Mr. Harris can be an imposingly serious actor, his face as hard and unyielding as quarried stone, but there is often a saving glint of mischief in his eye. And in “Appaloosa,” his second feature as director (after “Pollock”), he leavens the atmosphere of costumed rigidity and somber stoicism with sly, relaxed humor.

There is no shortage of killing — it’s a large part of how Virgil Cole, Mr. Harris’s character, makes his living — but “Appaloosa” works best as a cunning, understated sex comedy. Superimposed on the usual diagram of good guys and bad guys, with a scattering of fools, cowards and mercenaries in the middle, is an improbable romantic triangle. Virgil and his sidekick, Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen), are like a long-married couple, with Everett as the patient helpmeet, backing up his partner’s gunfighting bravado with quiet competence and helping him with difficult Latinate words.

The two men make their living as lawmen for hire, imposing the rule of the gun on chaotic frontier towns like Appaloosa, in the New Mexico territory. There a gaggle of bumbling town elders (including the near-ubiquitous and always welcome Timothy Spall) need help dealing with a murderous landowner named Bragg. Played by Jeremy Irons with some vocal inflections borrowed from Daniel Day-Lewis in “There Will Be Blood,” Bragg is a smooth-talking killer attended by a large retinue of unshaven thugs.

As such he causes some problems for Virgil and Everett, but the real trouble starts when they meet Allie French (Reneé Zellweger), a not terribly grief-stricken widow who — how else to put it? — has Virgil at hello. Before long Virgil, who has never shown much interest in settling down, is building a house at the end of Appaloosa’s main street and asking Everett’s advice about window treatments.

This experiment in domestic bliss is complicated by a number of developments, including some darting glances (and then a bit more) between Everett and Allie, who turns out not to be the paragon of wifely constancy Virgil takes her for. The most subversive aspect of “Appaloosa” may be the way it quietly jettisons the shopworn sexual categories the Production Code imposed on the women of the old westerns.

Respectability is a hazy concept in a half-settled world ruled by greed and violence. Everett and Virgil are honorable men who dwell in a gray area between venality and virtue, and the compromises Allie makes in order to gain a bit of freedom and security are not all that different from theirs.

The movie’s tolerant, good-humored view of its characters drains it of some dramatic intensity, but Mr. Harris seems more interested in piquant, offhand moments than in big, straining confrontations. One important gunfight goes by so quickly and anticlimactically that even Everett remarks on how fast it was over. “That’s because the folks knew how to shoot,” Virgil says, offering an implicit defense of Mr. Harris’s crafty and unassuming approach to filmmaking.

And like Virgil and Everett, everyone involved in “Appaloosa” favors professionalism over bluster. This is especially true of Mr. Mortensen, whose features are half-hidden behind facial hair that is by far the showiest thing about him. Everett says very little and spends a lot of time just watching the other, more voluble characters, so Mr. Mortensen’s performance resides almost entirely in his eyes, which register tiny, unmistakable nuances of surprise, suspicion and amusement.

These are what make the movie worth watching. It’s not a great western, and, as I’ve suggested, it doesn’t really try to be. Some potentially interesting political themes — about what it means for a polity to privatize its apparatus of justice and security, about the relationship between righteousness and force — are left for other, more earnest pictures to explore. This one shows a square jaw and a steely gaze, but also a smile and a wink.

“Appaloosa” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). It has gun violence, brief nudity and profanity.


Directed by Ed Harris; written by Robert Knott and Mr. Harris, based on the novel by Robert B. Parker; director of photography, Dean Semler; edited by Kathryn Himoff; music by Jeff Beal; production designer, Waldemar Kalinowski; produced by Mr. Harris, Mr. Knott and Ginger Sledge; released by Warner Brothers Pictures and New Line Cinema. Running time: 1 hour 47 minutes.

WITH: Viggo Mortensen (Everett Hitch), Ed Harris (Virgil Cole), Renée Zellweger (Allison French), Jeremy Irons (Randall Bragg), Timothy Spall (Phil Olson) and Lance Henriksen (Ring Shelton).

More About This Movie

Tickets & Showtimes
New York Times Review
Cast, Credits & Awards
Readers' Reviews (8)
Trailers & Clips

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More Fun, Less Politics, at Toronto Film Festival (September 6, 2008)
Clips and Trailer: 'Appaloosa'
More on Ed Harris

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