Whether you’ve seen none or a hundred westerns, chances are the conventions of the genre are rattling around somewhere in your consciousness. Images of dusty cow-towns, duels at high noon on Main Street and marauding, savage injuns’ (the genre’s term, not mine) are part and parcel of films of this kind and they are ingrained in our national consciousness like the pledge of allegiance and grandma’s apple pie. It’s obvious from his latest directorial effort, Appaloosa, that Ed Harris knows these tropes like the back of his hand, as those mentioned above and many more pop up, all rendered with a loving sense of nostalgia for bygone days. His has a romantic vision of the West and while there are those that may object to the film’s simplicity, there are enough variations on these themes to make it worthwhile.
Harris and Viggo Mortensen are Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch, two guns-for-hire who go from one trouble town to the next, cleaning out the resident varmints. The bad guy running wild in the title town is Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons), who’s killed the former sheriff and is intent on controlling the area’s mining interests. While he poses a threat, it’s nothing Virgil and Everett haven’t seen before. No, what throws them for a loop is the arrival of the widow, Allison French (Rene Zellwegger), a seemingly innocent woman who Virgil falls for instantly. Before you know it, he’s gotten her a job at the local hotel and is soon setting up house with her, much to the consternation of Everett. Shootin’ bad guys is easy. Dealing with woman though, now that’s hard, confusing work for these gunslingers.
Based on the novel by Robert Parker, the story includes every western convention including double crosses, narrow escapes, Indian attacks and rides into the sunset. This is all rendered lovingly, as if we are peering into the past through a nickelodeon spinning sepia-toned pictures. The towns, the clothes and even the faces of the cast are all weathered, worn and tough, beaten down by but resistant to the elements of the wilderness they must contend with. No other period film this year has a more intriguing or accurate look.
The cast knows how to handle this material and go along way towards making it fresh. Zellwegger is able to charm us and be sympathetic towards Allison, though her actions are far from honorable at times. Irons manages to infuse some life into Bragg, as he makes the transition from criminal to respectable business man while retaining amoral sensibility. But the two leads make this material soar. Harris and Mortensen are able to convey that Virgil and Everett have ridden many trails together, know and keep each other’s secrets and would take a bullet for one another with a simple nod of the head and vocal inflection. This is minimalist movie acting at its best, yet they are not afraid to let the vulnerabilities of their characters show in a humorous way. Cole is constantly looking for a better word with which to express himself and the better-educated Everett supplies it, much to his dismay, on many occasions.
Equally funny is a moment in which they try to contend with why women like to set up house and which pattern to choose for a proposed set of curtains. These guys are in over their head here, and it’s great fun to watch. While the gunslinging and derring-do on display is nothing new, it’s well-done and enhanced by this refreshing real take on male bonding.