Friday, October 10, 2008

Appaloosa (2008)

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.


ratatouille's archives said...

Hi! A.C.
A really nice review of the film
Appaloosa. Rick (from CCM) suggested, that I go check this film out!...Because he said, "It looks great! on the big screen!"
My response:... I most definitely, will check this film out!...
I also told Rick, that the ad for this film is..."Grand!"

I have linked the advertisement for the film Appaloosa below...I hope that it open!..if not..Oh! bien,
dcd ;)

Coleman's Corner in Cinema... said...

Thank you, dark city dame.

It's worth seeing on the big screen. Unfortunately, the only venue at which it was playing my area was a multiplex, which had this film on a much smaller screen than I would have liked.

Candice Smith said...

I loved this film, because it was a real man's cowboy movie. Growing up with my dad loving western's, and watching them all the time I grew to appreciate them. I liked it, because it was not Hollywooded up; it was real and laid back. I can see it being slow for some people but those are my favorite types of movies.

Props to Ed Harris on this one.

Coleman's Corner in Cinema... said...

Hi, Candice--thank you for stopping by and commenting. I hope to see you around these parts.

Your relating to the film from your personal perspective is quite interesting, and I too give the film credit for being as laid back as it is.

Anonymous said...

My apologies for not seeing this review sooner. I was at the Met watching SALOME this afternoon, and am shortly leaving the house to see the Jonathan Demme film. I am sorry to say I did not care much for this film at all, but I will be more specific later this evening when I offer this typically succinct and beautifully-structured piece the kind of response it deserves.

Coleman's Corner in Cinema... said...

Thank you, Sam, I look forward to your "response." I hope SALOME was enjoyable, and that you find the Demme picture agreeable.

Tony D'Ambra said...

Again I haven't seen this one - it hasn't been released here yet.

I am like Candice, my father had taken my brother and I to countless Western matinees in the late 50s before I was even 8, and my perception of the Western is for better or for worse confined to particular classic motifs.

I feel the Western after Shane has never reached those hallowed heights again. It is all about homage and deepening the complexity of the bad guy in the better attempts, and more graphic violence in the lesser.

For me the true Western is mythical and really only ever about one man - an outsider and a loner - who commits violence as a reluctant arbiter of a cosmic order outside laws defined by man alone. He is reticent, unassuming, unschooled but deeply Zen-wise. Zen-wise - a Yaqi kind of knowledge received not from peyote but from the separateness of being alone for long stretches in the wilderness far from other men and with no ties - quintessentially alone - and able to see burgeoning civilisation from the outside without the burden of commitment .

Anonymous said...

Fine review, Alexander. I especially like your observation that it's born to be precisely what it is. No more and no less, and no bull.

And "gray-tinted archetypes" is a great line.

Coleman's Corner in Cinema... said...

Tony, that is truly one of the finest statements about the Western genre I have ever read, and I sincerely thank you for sharing your glistening comment. Your wonderful description of the one man at the heart of the Western genre is sublime; the Zen-wise attributes, the Yaqi kind of knowledge derived from the man's isolation from civilization--all very fascinating observations...

I do agree that the Western genre has, certainly since the days of the "spaghetti Western," perhaps, transformed as more of a comment on classic Western pictures than advancing vernal thematic conceptions and ideas.

One must concede that on a certain level, Appaloosa is a continuation of that.

Coleman's Corner in Cinema... said...

Thank you very much, Rick.

I'm always at my happiest when another feels similarly about a particular film, and best of all, we both like the film for being what it was.

Unlike Sam. Haha.

Anonymous said...

Nice piece, Alexander, but I haven't seen the film yet and, from what I have heard about it, I will hardly be doing a Usain Bolt to do so. I shall see in on DVD maybe.

Anonymous said...

Well Alexander, it is rare for us to be diametrically opposed on a film, but it makes things more fun, as neither of us can be truly enriched if we maintain the posturings of syncophants. The film received mixed reviews, and I see that blogger Matt Gamble furiously responded to a review posted at Getafilm, where Dan Getahaun gave a rightful "B minus" mixed review. Gamble didn't want to know anything. He said the film was unequivably a bad film, and that's that. I don't agree with Gamble for taking Daniel to task for a review that was indifferent and negative enough (how often do people write F or D minus reviews for anything?) That said I have nothing again Matt, and I have his fine website on my blogroll.

When you say Alexander that "Harris appears to be interested in the turmoils of a particular kind of a man's mind" I don't doubt it at all. I just don't feel he was able to get beyond certain stereotypes associated with this, a point enforced by his previous direction of POLLACK, a film that was noted by surface interpolations. He plays it by the book, which doesn't cut it anymore, in view of the vaunted bar that was set by THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES and to a lesser degree, 3:10 TO YUMA. For me this film followed western conventions in both story, theme and setting, lending none of these elements any new insights. We have more than enough of our share of westerns in the back catalogue, without this distinctly ordinary film filling in any entertainment gaps.
Harris played Harris here, and there was little by way of "screen chemistry" with Mortensen. To boot, Zellweger was dire in her miscast role.
That said, there is no way anyone could read this review and not be fantastically impressed with the writing, the approach, the use of synonyms and the traditional no-holds-barred examination of film, whether it be in the classic or the contemporary vein.
And something must also be said for your admirable aversion to summary dismissal, which is often counterproductive.
Tony's western definition there was indeed examplary.

In any case, I am happy to say that I rarely disagree with Alexander to this extent, but when I do I am always enriched by his scholarly discourse.

Coleman's Corner in Cinema... said...

Thank you, Allan.

Sam, you raise some very good points. I actually predicted that you would say that this film needed to be more than what it was in the wake of 3:10 to Yuma and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.

I honestly believe that in some definitive ways Harris beat Mangold. Mangold's direction of Yuma in my mind never took the inherent advantage of shooting a Western, resorting to many pedestrian and uninteresting close-ups. Harris has his close-ups, too, but he made them count for more. Conversely, I think it is a highly difficult to judge Appaloosa against The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford simply because Harris' film is so traditionalist, and, thematically speaking, feels much more at home with the older classics (whose existence do indeed reinforce your point about us all having so many Westerns already that perhaps go over similar terrain).

However, I completely accept your dramatically different take and enjoy reading your position, Sam.

I do believe that Appaloosa has some elements, though, that keep it from being caducous--despite my dislike of Zellweger, I liked the attempt to develop Cole through the prism of his efforts of self-improvement, for which she remained the pinnacle in his eyes (at least for a while).

And thank you for the very kind words, as always, Sam. There are some movies I will dismiss in the future, don't you worry. Unfortunately, one I more or less did, you liked, haha--oh well.

Tony D'Ambra said...

Thanks Alexander for your generous response. Some of the credit is yours though as your fine review(s) evoke thoughts beyond the immediate subject.

Coleman's Corner in Cinema... said...

Thank you kindly, Allan.

Daniel said...

Slowly catching up here.

Well you're right, Alexander, and you had a lot more to say about this than me! Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to watch a movie with you - our understanding of the layers on screen (evident in your study of Emerson here) are on two different levels. I say blah, it was a boring Western, and then you come up with something like this. Well done as always.

Thanks for your thoughts there, Sam. I think your catalogue comment is right in line with my thoughts on Appaloosa. It didn't take away from the genre, but it hardly added to it. Regarding Matt's comment, well I think he was in a feisty mood that day (we had gone back and forth jokingly on a few comments) and he was making more of a point that he and I disagreed on 2-3 films all at once!

Keep this up, Alexander! It seems people are increasingly taking note of your fine and fair reviews.

Coleman's Corner in Cinema... said...

Thank you very much for the extraordinarily kind words, Daniel. I would love to see a film with you, and other fine people I know from our blogging activities. :)

I am glad you appreciated what I was going after with this review even if you found yourself underwhelmed by the movie. The ceaseless television ads with a critic proclaiming it to be a classic or some such hyperbole is a little laughable, but I liked it for what it was, which was sturdy, solid, unassuming--flawed, but with strengths that helped to alleviate the occasional stumble.

Joel E said...

I liked Tony's comments and I generally agree with Alexander that Appaloosa fits that summation of an old school Western in one respect. I also agree that comparing this to Assassination of Jesse James is doing a disservice to Appaloosa, as the two films have little in common. I also think that in many respects, Appaloosa is less visceral and exciting than 3:10 to Yuma but it's a better Western, cut closer to the curve of the traditional Western and more conscious of the reality of the West.

I think Appaloosa has some real issues in it's final third. Harris seems to be shoe-horning a lot of narrative into a small section of the film to complete all his characters arcs and keep the movie under 2 hours and the film suffers for it. I wonder if this was forced upon him by the studio or was a conscious decision on his part? It didn't feel organic at all and I felt the film suffered some for it. Overall though, I enjoyed the movie. Very beautiful to watch and Viggo proves once again that he is one of the most underrated actors working today. The guy just continues to amaze me with his range.

Coleman's Corner in Cinema... said...

I agree that Appaloosa is more roundly informed by both the west and the western than 3:10 to Yuma was, Joel.

The final third does have quite a bit of plot, but I was okay with it because Harris managed to slow the narrative down in the final stretch, perhaps partly to compensate.

Mortensen was certainly the highlight in many ways, and this proved he could play a character much more laconic than some of his other roles.

Craig Kennedy said...

There are plenty of rough edges to Appaloosa that you could latch onto to not like the movie, but like you it mostly worked for me.

For me, it began and ended with Harris and Mortensen. They were great together. Terrific chemistry and some of the dialogue was nicely sharp.

It's unfair to compare it to other classics of the genre. For one thing, I didn't get the sense it was trying to be anything other than what it was: a buddy movie. It wasn't reaching for anything epic or mythic here. It was kind of pulpy, in a good way.

Nice review. It sounds like we largely agree even if you liked it a bit more.

Coleman's Corner in Cinema... said...

Thank you, Craig...

Yes, it was a "buddy movie" in many ways. On that score, as well, it worked for me, as it did for you.

Good thoughts on it.

Coleman's Corner in Cinema... said...

I would just like to say that I took another look at this film theatrically and enjoyed it even more than I did before. Perhaps being able to expect the somewhat strange plot progression helped, but in any event the film seemed to actually gain in attributes with a second viewing.

Anonymous said...

Good flick, better review.

You make a lot of great, thoughtful points.

Coleman's Corner in Cinema... said...

Thanks for stopping by and commenting, Byron, and for the kind words.

Anonymous said...

I loved this movie. I've been looking for a great review of it and you wrote one here. Congrats.

Coleman's Corner in Cinema... said...

Thank you very much, Anonymous.

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