by Tony Medley
Runtime 116 minutes.
If you like your western
heroes laconic, Ed Harris and Viggo Mortensen are your guys and
“Appaloosa” is your movie. If, on the other hand, you want reason and
realism to have something to do with your western, it’s not.
To start out with, from the
first shot of Appaloosa, an overview of a town with no more than 20
buildings in a wasteland, the questions that continuously popped into my
mind were, “Why is this town there?” and “What do these people do for a
living?” Even though there are so few buildings in town, it has a
newspaper, the Appaloosa Gazette, and it looks like it has as many pages
as the New York Daily News, a train station, a church, and a hotel. Why?
Well, I think, maybe it’s a
cattle town. Only there’s no cattle to be seen and no prairie on which
they could graze, which is probably why there’s no cattle. Well, maybe
it’s a farming community. Except that nobody could grow anything on this
land, except cactus. There’s no river. Why does this town exist, except
to make a movie about it?
Lest you think there were
towns like this, probably most people will equate this town to
Tombstone, Arizona, site of the Gunfight at the OK Corral (it’s probably
not a coincidence that the protagonist is named “Virgil,” the name of
Wyatt Earp’s brother, who participated in the Gunfight). This film is
set in 1882 in New Mexico. Tombstone was founded in 1879 with 40
buildings. Population was around 3,000 in early 1881. By late 1881, at
about the time of the Gunfight, it had jumped to 7,000. So Appaloosa,
with its 20 buildings and maybe 40 residents at most, is no Tombstone.
Within the first five
minutes, a Marshall with two deputies enters the ranch (I guess it’s a
ranch, although, as I said, I never saw any cattle) of Randall Bragg
(Jeremy Irons) and says he’s going to arrest two hands of Bragg’s for
murder. Again, questions nagged at me. This town has got one Marshall
and two deputies for 40 residents? Oh well, back to the movie; Bragg
shoots the three dead.
The town doesn’t like that
and the way Bragg and his people are taking advantage of the
townspeople, so they hire Virgil Cole (Harris) and his deputy and
partner Everett Hitch (Mortensen), who have made their reputation as
peacekeepers in the lawless towns springing up in the untamed land.
Then provocative Allison
French (Renée Zellweger) arrives on the train and steals the heart of
Cole. More questions; why would this relatively attractive single woman
come to Appaloosa? Well, that question does get answered somewhat later,
but only if one assumes that Harris (who directed and co-wrote with
Robert Knott, based on a book by Robert Parker of Spenser fame),
actually thought it all through, something I tended to doubt as the film
sputtered to its anti-climactic ending.
The film is atmospheric if
you ignore the problems I’ve already stated, but it’s very slow and
there’s really not much of a story here. Cole and Hitch are out to get
Bragg, and their plan appears to be to talk him to death. It really took
a lot of stretching to get this to last for almost two hours.
September 20, 2008