Dir: Ed Harris. USA. 2008. 114 mins.
Ed Harris’s first film as a director since his Oscar-winning Pollock in 2000 is a gentle, warmly human and quietly compelling western with a wry sense of humour and some engaging performances from a group of fine actors. A bizarre love triangle of sorts between two cowboy buddies in the old west and a woman who disrupts their friendship, Appaloosa won’t set the box office alight, but it will do steady business in the domestic market and will certainly find critical favour in international territories, if not much of an audience.
Westerns have failed to score in international terms for many decades. With the odd exception like Unforgiven or Dances With Wolves, they represent a uniquely American phenomenon. Even in the US, they have been running out of steam or onto the small screen in the shape of Lonesome Dove or Into The West. Recent examples of the genre - The Assassination Of Jesse James, Open Range, American Outlaws, Wild Bill - have even failed to make much of a dent at the domestic box office.
The star names here, the strong performances - a couple of which might merit awards recognition - and favourable reviews might help generate more interest for Appaloosa.
Set in 1882 in the Old West territory of New Mexico, the film starts as a cut-throat rancher named Randall Bragg (Irons, giving a colourful villainous turn complete with an accent not too far from Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood) shoots dead the city marshall of nearby town Appaloosa and his two deputies when they come to his ranch to arrest some of his men.
The eldermen of Appaloosa (played by Spall, James Gammon and Tom Bower) hire hard-bitten travelling lawman Virgil Cole (Harris) and his deputy Everett Hitch (Mortensen) to bring Bragg to justice and order to the town. Cole imposes a set of strict laws to which they agree and whereby he gets to call the shots.
His interest in Appaloosa is doubled when brassy widow Allison French (Zellweger) arrives in town and the two begin a romance. They get engaged and buy a plot of land on which to build a house, perplexing Hitch whose wandering life with Cole suits him.
But Mrs French is not the loyal housewife her husband presumes and when one day she makes a pass at Hitch, he rebuffs her, telling her that they are both pledged to Virgil Cole, she as wife, he as partner and friend.
The triangle here is fascinating and a turn in the story involving the kidnapping of Mrs French is even more intriguing. It’s a pleasure to watch the grizzled faces of the male actors - Mortensen, Harris, Irons, Henriksen - as they wearily struggle through a life where death is confronted on a daily basis. But Zellweger, looking somewhat unprepossessing, is miscast in the role of a woman under whose spell all men seem to fall.
New Line Cinema/Warner Bros
New Line International
Based on the novel by Robert B Parker