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Appaloosa (5/10)

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