A Western, Ed Harris style
by Jason Blair
APPALOOSA: Directed by Ed Harris. Written by Harris and Robert Knott. Cinematography, Dean Semler. Music, Jeff Beal. Starring Ed Harris, Viggo Mortensen, Renée Zellweger and Jeremy Irons. Warner Bros. Pictures, 2008. R. 114 minutes.
|Ed Harris, Renée Zellweger, Viggo Mortensen and Jeremy Irons in Appaloosa|
My mother has been a fan of Ed Harris for years — and so has my father, which is I why I mention it. For my mother, the affection dates back to CHiPs and The Rockford Files, two of a number of popular television dramas on which Harris cut his teeth. Hollywood success was slower in coming for Harris; it probably wasn’t until 1983’s The Right Stuff that audiences, including my dad and myself, took notice of this coiled spring of an actor with a face, to borrow from Emil Capouya, like a “block of cordial granite.” Since State of Grace, in 1990, Harris has more or less averaged one good film for every mediocre one — personal favorites include his roles as Christof in The Truman Show and the twitchy salesman in Glengarry Glen Ross — which means that at least half the time, he’s not wasting ours.
Appaloosa isn’t the first Western for Harris, but it’s the first Western with his hands on the reins. Harris writes, directs and stars in Appaloosa, a film that’s solid and effective if unremarkable, meaning it closely resembles the actor himself. Like John Wayne and Kirk Douglas before him, Harris understands that part of the pleasure of a Western is watching a lonely man with a certain kind of features enforce his idea of justice against a vast, unforgiving backdrop. Harris, as “peacekeeper” Virgil Cole, fits the bill, but in case he doesn’t, Viggo Mortensen is along for the ride as his sidekick, Everett Hitch. Peacekeepers, it turns out, are the men you call when the men charged with protecting you — sheriffs, for example — get murdered by corrupt businessmen like Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons). Here, Appaloosa resembles a thousand period Westerns in that it chronicles the attempt to bring Bragg into custody and keep him there. But what sets Appaloosa apart is its quiet sensibility. It reaches for the tonal quality of Unforgiven, a sort of resignation mixed with confusion, and while it falls well short of that classic, it scores simply by aiming for high ground.
To be fair, Appaloosa isn’t a revisionist Western. Perhaps it should have been. Virgil would have been stronger for being weaker; as it is, he has trouble pronouncing the occasional word, but that’s the fullest expression of his fear and doubt. That’s right: The Achilles heel of Virgil Cole, legendary sharpshooter and lawman, is that he can’t beat his fellow cowboys at Scrabble. Keeping him honest is Allison French (Renée Zellweger), but honesty isn’t Allison’s strong suit: She’s a girl who tends to sleep with whoever is holding forth at the moment. It might be Zellweger’s most underdeveloped role, but she brings to it all the twinkle she can muster. Allison’s romance with Virgil breaks the unwritten rule that lawmen, whether in 1882 or today, put at risk every person they openly love.
The scope of Appaloosa, like the town itself, is small and resolutely intimate. The film succeeds precisely because of that. It has the lowest body count of the recent Westerns, adding to the resurgence of the genre without having to apologize for anything. It offers a glimpse of big ideas here and there, particularly as a commentary on the abuse of power, but in general Appaloosa is a sweet, conversational picture content to engage you without a lot of gunpowdery histrionics. If you don’t expect too much, you’re bound to be entertained.