This week, I felt like taking a break from all the new releases and critically acclaimed films of yesteryear. Now, who wants to read about a deliberately-paced Western? Guys? Where did everybody—ah, what the hell.
The Plot: When bad guy rancher Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons) guns down the sheriff and the deputies in cold blood, the town leaders of Appaloosa call in freelance lawmen Virgil Cole (Ed Harris) and Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen) to clean things up. As the two friends work to uphold the law, things are complicated by the arrival of the classy, piano playing widow Mrs. Allison French (Renée Zellweger). Cole immediately begins to fall for her, leaving Hitch to consider the future of this 12-year gun-slinging partnership. Meanwhile, Bragg uses henchmen and political connections to do his best to avoid a hanging.
Ah, Westerns. Was there ever a genre so unfairly reviled by film students? For the purposes of this review, let’s say no, there wasn’t. Let’s also say that I’m smarter and cooler than everyone in your Film Theory class. I’m a formerly-paid film critic, so it must be true.
However you feel about the bold statements I made just now, I think we can all agree that it’s hip to hate on Westerns. They can signify all sorts of awful things, like racism and outdated standards of manliness. But to write off the whole genre is, quite frankly, childish. Watch any of John Ford’s Greatest Hits and tell me I’m wrong. I will fight you.
Appaloosa is a Western for the modern age. Hold on, dear reader. Before you get all excited and start throwing around words like “deconstruction” and “Sam Peckinpah,” let me explain. This film doesn’t glamorize the Old West, true. Nor does it revel in taking our greatest Myths down a peg. Ed Harris—who co-wrote with Robert Knott, and also directed—is more interested in telling a human story than in creating a Legend, Mr. Wayne. Appaloosa is a film that respects the code its protagonists live by, but also understands that Cole and Hitch are real men, with real flaws. When I say that this film is modern, what I really mean is that it’s a grounded, human story set in a genre that has somewhat fallen out of fashion. If you don’t like Westerns, but consider yourself a connoisseur of cinema, then you can probably make it through Appaloosa without rolling your eyes too much. If, like me, you were raised on John Wayne, but are growing more inclined towards slow-burn character studies—not that the Duke didn’t have any of those under his belt—then Appaloosa is exactly what you need.
This film isn’t about guns, horses, or fightin’ Injuns. It’s about a well-worn friendship between two men who have both chosen to follow a Code. Virgil and Everett have been friends for years. Cole is the leader, but Everett is smarter and more perceptive. He knows when to let his friend take charge, but he’s always there in the corner with an 8-gauge, and, sometimes, the right word. One of the film’s many deft touches is the way that Cole, trying to better himself, often struggles with what we kids refer to as “SAT words.” When he can’t quite remember something like “sequestered,” he turns to his partner for guidance. Hitch never judges him, just offers up the right word with a wry smile. Details like this—coupled with the excellent chemistry between Harris and Mortensen—are what make the friendship, and, in the end, the film work. Both actors give strong, understated performances, creating a dynamic that feels comfortable and honest.
The way that Everett reacts to Virgil’s growing infatuation with the lovely Mrs. French further adds to this sense of solid friendship. Both men know that this relationship will irrevocably alter their own, and that Allison is a deeply flawed woman. As Virgil says: “She speaks well, she dresses fine, she’s good-looking, she can play the piano, she cooks good, she’s very clean, chews her food nice; but it appears she’ll fuck anything ain’t gelded.” Everett cares about his friend, though, and knows when it’s time to step out of the way and let him move on with his life.
Allison is a tough woman, but her vulnerabilities still manage to get the better of her. She’s afraid of being alone and left poor in a world that can be cruel to women of any kind, let alone those without money. Virgil does love her, though, in spite of her tendency to sleep with whichever man seems like the most capable at the time. And she loves him, looking past his simple-minded dedication to the law and occasional tendency to beat the ever-loving shit out of men who don’t deserve it. Two flawed people, each aware of the other’s flaws, yet finding something to love. That’s, uh, that’s pretty much what love is, folks.
Some of my favorite scenes in this film are just those with characters sitting around talking; not about the plot, just shootin’ the shit and eating pie. I like Virgil, Everett, and Allison. I like spending time with them. I especially like that Harris takes the time to let us get to know them. This is a Western where the gunfights are secondary to the conversation. Rather, the gunfights and the plot come organically from the characters, who we care about because of those easy-going chats.
Another thing that Harris respects, which I also appreciated, is the code that Cole and Hitch live by. It isn’t a complex one, and some might argue that it just boils down to “murder guys when it’s legal,” but I’d say there’s more to it than that. These are men of honor, who respond to chaotic times by acting with decency and adhering to a strict set of rules. They do what they have to in order to bring down the bad guys, what may seem like cold-blooded murder is always…wait for it…justified.
All this talk of the Code brings me to the Bad Guy. Bragg isn’t a particularly complex villain. He’s a cultured man who likes being bad. While I’ve always been partial to antagonists who can earn a grudging respect from Intrepid Heroes, Bragg’s function is to foil—and act as foil to—the Code. He is a man without honor, placed in sharp contrast to Cole and Hitch. The fact that he’s cunning and well-connected ultimately SPOILERSPOILERKINDOFIGUESS allows him to beat the code. The two lawmen can’t kill him without breaking the law. The son of a bitch walks free. ENDKINDOFSPOILERS.
Maybe someday I’ll do a column just focusing on honor-bound men placed at odds, comparing Appaloosa to the likes of Road to Perdition and Samurai Rebellion. For now, let’s just leave it at this: underdeveloped though he may be, Bragg serves his purpose.
I’m sure that some of you have been waiting eagerly for me to get to the gun stuff. Even if you haven’t, you’ve come this far, so you might as well finish this thing with me.
The gunfights are fast and, as far as I know, realistic. It’s mostly just men with guns standing there and shooting at each other. Some men are better shots than others. After one shootout, Everett remarks to Virgil, “That was quick.” Virgil responds with, “Yeah, everybody could shoot.” What makes the gunfights work as well as they do—and they work very, very well—is the way that Harris builds the tension. We know the characters, we know the world, we know the stakes. So when two men with guns walk into the street, there’s more at play than Standard Old West Gunfight.
In short (ha!), Appaloosa is exactly the kind of Western that I wanted to see. It’s deliberately paced, with well-written characters and something to say. It’s about friendship, love, and the difficulty of maintaining honor when you’re up against an enemy who has none. There’s more in there that I liked, but I’ll be damned if these things ain’t getting longer every week, so I s’pose it’s time for me to hit that long, dusty trail.