Readers know that I love the movies, almost all kinds of movies. I especially like history, drama, science fiction, certain action films and a lot of biography. I like some comedy, but a great deal of it I find rather unassuming and inane. Only in the last two years have I gone back to the one film genre I watched as a child: American Westerns. Series like Lonesome Dove and the greatest Western of 2007, 3:10 to Yuma, both gave me a renewed appreciation for such films.
The new film Appaloosa is, to my view, a truly great Western. It is set in a small town in New Mexico in 1882 and is an adaptation of a novel by Robert B. Parker. It is an unassuming, character-driven, drama as much as it is a Western, including the saloons, whores and Indians. It takes a time period in American history, when people lived a rugged existence, and shows how they tried to manage their lives as best they knew how. And it fills a great story with deep friendship and an unusual romance. There are a number of twists and turns in the story that leave you guessing in the very best sense.
The chemistry of the two leading actors Cole (Ed Harris) and Everett (Viggo Mortensen) fills the big screen with deep feeling and gets your heart and mind into the film in an unusual way. The two leading men are lawmen-for-hire who promise to clean up the lawlessness of the New Mexico town, Appaloosa. They are as devoted to one another as any two friends I have seen portrayed in film for a long time. Everett will regularly finish Cole's lines, when he gets stumped, as if they had grown up together as brothers.
They understand one another deeply, sacrifice for each other profoundly, and always protect the each other. They have traveled together for twelve years, going from town to town, cleaning up the moral trash in the area by becoming a two-man law enforcement team. Their ways are unorthodox but it works in this context very well.
Enter Allison (Renee Zellweger), the new woman in Appaloosa who becomes the love interest of Cole and spells some trouble for Everett. Allison proves unfaithful to Cole but not in the usual sort of way. Her complex character brings something to the story that makes Appaloosa such an unusual drama for a Western. A fourth major character in the film, Bragg (Jeremy Irons), is a most bad dude. We meet him first when he guns down three lawmen who have come to arrest one of "his boys."
The music, narration and scenes in Appaloosa are magnificent and all well used. The story wastes no time and thus hooks in the first half hour. You are not allowed to drift away to the very end. I will not spoil the story for you but the ending is not predictable at all. I saw the film with a good friend and we both commented on where we thought the plot was going at several points. We were both wrong!
Ed Harris turns in what could be considered an award winning performance. One positive reviewer said of the film: "Appaloosa doesn't break any new ground. It's not revisionist Western, but it's a solid throwback to the kinds of movies that championed the values that defined America during its expansion."
Appaloosa is rated R for some violence and language. It runs for 108 minutes but it never lost my interest for a moment. If you like Westerns you should love it. Even if you don't I think you would love it. I did.