Two friends hired to police a small town that is suffering under the rule of a rancher find their job complicated by the arrival of a young widow.
Nearly every time someone foolishly proclaims the Western is dead, along comes a well-crafted, entertaining film like Appaloosa to prove the genre is alive and kicking.
Based on a Robert B. Parker 2005 novel, this oddball buddy movie respects the Western’s traditions but also cleverly subverts convention.
Virgil Cole (Ed Harris) and Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen) are lawmakers-for-hire, who’ve spent a dozen years imposing the rule of the gun on frontier towns like Appaloosa, New Mexico.
Like an old married couple, they understand each other instinctively, and their conversation is sparse; in one of the running gags throughout the film, Virgil often has to ask the quicker-witted Everett to finish words he can’t quite summon up, like 'disparaging" and 'sequestered.’
Their relationship is thrown off-key when Allie French (Reneé Zellweger), a merry widow who plays the piano, arrives in town. Virgil, whose previous romantic encounters were restricted to 'squaws and whores," falls hard for her. She reciprocates — but it’s clear she also attracted to Everett.
The lawmen set out to capture Randall Braggs (Jeremy Irons), the leader of a gang who murdered the previous marshal and two of his deputies. Refreshingly, this bad guy is eloquent and sophisticated — as well as psychotic.
After one of Bragg’s gang volunteers to testify in court against his boss, Virgil and Everett manage to arrest the villain. Then, in echoes of Rio Bravo, the two lawmen stand guard at their small jail until a judge arrives to try their prisoner, knowing that, at some point, Bragg’s men will try to spring him and kill the witness.
Allie’s motives are even more questionable after she’s kidnapped and held hostage in a bid to free Braggs. There’s a shoot-out with unpredictable results, and a final confrontation in which loyalties are further tested.
Directing his second movie after Pollock, Harris focuses on the nuances of the characters and their interplay, rather than the violence and action pieces. The result is an amiable, leisurely-paced tale with more troughs than peaks, but a satisfying pay-off.
In their second on-screen pairing after A History of Violence, Harris and Mortensen are an engaging odd couple. Harris brings a sly sense of humour to the stoic Cole, who shows he can blithely kill in the name of the law but is far more vulnerable to a scheming widow.
Mortensen, who masks his good looks behind a handlebar moustache and goatee, is terrific as the loyal, laconic sidekick; he’s adept at displaying emotions like surprise and bemusement purely through his eyes.
Zellweger has said this was the first time she played a character when she wasn’t certain of her history and motivations: a fair comment considering she’s mostly had one-dimensional roles. Irons carries off his role with considerable panache.
One curious piece of casting is the usually impeccable Brit Timothy Spall as one of the town’s bumbling elders: no doubt he’s there for comic relief, but he comes across as a blustering buffoon. Full credit for the lush photography to Aussie cinematographer Dean Semler.