Ed Harris' Appaloosa is a sturdy, solid, unassumingly median picture. If it isn't perfectly at ease with itself, it is unusually satisfied. At a time when so many movies pretentiously take on more than their makers can chew, Harris' little Western seems preternaturally born to be precisely what it is. Appaloosa has a charming sense of amour-propre that eludes too many Hollywood features. Which is not to say that it wholly succeeds, or that it has the unmistakable polish of great, immediate cinema. Harris' film is what it is, and it is perfectly content to be that. And yet in its deceptive simplicity, it possesses some largely unobserved layers that merit consideration.
“The more laws, the less justice,” advises Marcus Tullius Cicero. Appaloosa essays the notional consequences and personal hazards of such a philosophical reality, with more scrutiny and rigorous determinism than several more superficially revisionist or dark oaters, including last year's 3:10 to Yuma (admittedly, Yuma dealt with other concerns—The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, meanwhile, was about the nature of celebrity, a rich and majestically imposing Grecian tragedy). The ironic matter is that by going back to the more traditional concerns of many a classic Western—films as texturally diverse but entwined in mutually overlapping thematic import as My Darling Clementine (1946), High Noon (1952), Shane (1953), Rio Bravo (1959) and Unforgiven (1992), the former four pictures earnestly commenting on the vexations of Hollywood's various interpretations of the law (most famously delineated in dramatically different takes on the lawman and his methodologies in Carl Foreman's socially-tinged screenplay adaptation of John W. Cunningham's magazine story “The Tin Star” and Howard Hawks' asseverating lightning bolt of his repeatedly touched-upon communal individualism: out of many, or at least a few, one), the latter portraying the personage of “the law” as corrupt and sadistic.
Appaloosa treats its characters as rounded individuals, though the impact these gray-tinted archetypes, shifting and mutating as they are, like naturalistic beings to a certain extent, is perhaps only fugacious. Working from a novel written by Robert B. Parker, Harris' adaptation with Robert Knott lays the groundwork with enticing facileness. Jeremy Irons plays a Procrustean rancher cutely named Randall Bragg. When a sheriff and his two deputies confront Bragg and his men one dusty afternoon about a few cowboys in Bragg's employ who murdered a man and raped and murdered his wife, Bragg nonchalantly executes them with his trusty Winchester. Later, a young man will say that Bragg shot them “...Like they were rattlesnakes...” Irons' performance is finely tuned and subdued, displaying a kind of ascetically mature understanding of his character that is most welcome. His chiseled face a little less chiseled these days, and in this picture buried under woolly facial hair, with emotionless, beady eyes, Irons resembles an intelligent, laniferous animal.
Harris plays Virgil Cole, a famed lawman whose oviform head and bracing, bright blue eyes assist him in embodying a man of bludgeoning personality, his straightforward code of ethics as protective to him as his overcoat and hat from the weather. That code of ethics is what drives the picture's surprisingly percipient connective tissue. Cole rides into a small town in the New Mexico Territory of 1882 called Appaloosa with his longtime sole friend, deputy and gunslinging wingman, Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen). Mortensen's Hitch is quiet, sensitive and almost unfailingly scrupulous. Mortensen's appearance seems to be straight out of a history book; Hitch's tamed virility at its most penetrative degree marks the perpetual contest between disorder and order, lawlessness and civilization, at the hypaethral heart of the Western genre.
The obligatory scene of Cole and Hitch agreeing to instill some semblance of law enforcement in Appaloosa, meeting with the comically loquacious elders of the town, plays out. Moments later, the corollary becomes apparent, as Cole's punitive handling of a group of toughs concludes in bloody fashion. The film's thematic treatment of the noblesse oblige of the law, inverted for the sake of the “enforcement” side of things, recalls pictures as disparate as the aforementioned cowboy yarns, Dirty Harry (with the imagery of the man standing up to the villainous and the vile for the sake of the increasingly loosely-defined and -parameterized society flinging his star into the abyss deeply reminiscent of High Noon) and The Dark Knight. Appaloosa's treatment of the alignment between violence and authority, one arguably perforce the extension of the other, finds a contextual synchronization in the bitter tiffs between Cole and Bragg. Most aptly, Ralph Waldo Emerson is singled out, as the Concord Sage's specific placement as intellectual American formulator and seeker of national justice (neatly given sweeping macrocosmic dimension by his abolitionism), an abstraction serving as an appurtenance to the organic development of a country. Interestingly, Bragg makes note of Emerson, as Cole reads Emerson's work. “Not the most graceful writer,” Bragg comments, “but he gets his point across.” Later, on a pivotal train ride, Bragg teases the lawman about the writer's “obfuscatory language.” An intriguing point is made with utmost frankness, openly questioning the tendency of many great thinkers to prevaricate. In this instance, the man endowed with an ungoverned conscience seizes the disputatiously fallacious foundations upon which men like Cole work pleno jure.
Where the film almost crumples up unto itself like a box being hastily opened is with the introduction of Renee Zellweger's Allison French, who gradually reveals herself to be a woman of dubious morality and sincerity. Cole becomes hopelessly attracted to her, nearly immediately, and for a while the narrative seems to be headed off into a painfully predictable direction, with “Ally,” as Cole calls her, representing the personified civilizing force that Annette Bening miraculously made into something of a real, live character in Open Range (2003). However, the screenplay somewhat gratifyingly pulls the rug out from under those expectations, portraying Ally as unsavory as well, her apparent domesticity (“She can cook... she's clean... she takes a bath before going to bed every night...” Cole tells his friend Hitch at one point) a facade that veils her more lascivious leanings. Zellweger's turn is imbalanced and annoyingly pouty, and though some of that was inevitably part of Ally's constitution, a more formidable actress could have made that into something tant mieux for the sake of the film.
Lance Henriksen makes a truly most welcome contribution as one half of a two-brothered hired gun team, the Sheltons. Featuring an authentically weathered face, Henriksen's part is unfortunately limited in scope, but his presence nevertheless helps significantly to increase the film's climactic tension. An untiring denizen of sci-fi, horror and Western movies, Henriksen seamlessly fits into Appaloosa's story.
Harris makes beautiful use of the 2:35 aspect ratio. In a bird's eye shot, his camera looks down on the aftermath of a fast shootout. (“That was fast,” notes one gunfighter. “Everybody could shoot,” another chokes out.) The diagonal positioning captures an arresting compositional arrangement that communicates the “fast” undoing of men in an impressively expressive and comprehensive way. The bodies strewn on the brightly sunbaked dirt leaves an impression, distinctively communicating the mercilessness with which the vicissitudes of fate leave desolate. At the film's conclusion, a lone figure rides out of town and Harris commendably shoots the scene with wordless, Fordian poignancy, placing the actors in the scene watching, their backs to the camera, looking in the direction of the sunset into which the gunslinger rides, their peripheral positions creating an aesthetically pleasing ambit. It is a sequence of poetry, and the blatant homage to Ford is grin-inducing.
As a filmmaker, Harris appears to be interested in the turmoils of a particular kind of man's mind. In Pollock (2000), Harris directed himself as the volatile artist, portraying a man completely dissatisfied with himself, his life and his world. He became embittered, his proverbial walls tightened in around him, his reasons for living became in his own mind fewer in number. Cole has that side to him. When he springs up and viciously attacks a man in a bar for being too loud and much too vulgar in the presence of a lady, it resonates. Less garrulous, more internalized than even Pollock was in many ways, but more obviously a man of violence, a man at war with himself, a man unable to fully control himself, a man crippled by arrogance and a man doubtless special, blessed by a gift that just may allow him to be redeemable.