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APPALOOSA (2008) ****1/2 advanced screening review by COOP

Posted on October 2nd, 2008
Posted on October 2nd, 2008


Ever since “Dances with Wolves” and “Unforgiven” won big Oscar gold in the early 1990’s, the studios have put out at least one big-budget western per year in the hopes of attracting the same critical and commercial success. While some of these are rootin’, tootin’ action films, many fall under the category of “revisionist westerns.” Revisionist westerns deconstruct the hero (or sometimes “anti-hero”), showing them as either indistinguishable from the villains or as sad, flawed human beings, usually dying at the end. While “Appaloosa” plays with some of the revisionist ideals, it stays close enough to the Hollywood formula to make it enjoyable for anyone who loves an honest-to-goodness western.

In the small New Mexico town of Appaloosa, legendary lawmen Virgil Cole (Ed Harris) and Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen) get hired to bring a corrupt, murdering rancher (Jeremy Irons) to justice and restore order. With the arrival of a flighty, young lady named Ally (Renee Zellweger), Virgil and “Hitch” find themselves at the mercy of her wily ways, further complicating their job.

While the sparse action gives the film a deliberate, slow pace, the story drips with high tension. This is due to Ed Harris’s portrayal of Virgil as a man prone to sudden and unexpected violence. Luckily the level-headed Hitch is always nearby to keep Virgil from going too far. While Virgil at first seems like a cold and unstable man, he becomes so smitten with Ally when she arrives, he giggles like a schoolboy upon meeting her. Seeing Virgil go from irrational in violence to irrational in love makes his partner, Hitch, uneasy.

Without Zellweger’s character, this film would’ve been a straight-up action western. Her inclusion allowed for the character of Virgil to change, jeopardizing his life and career because of her, even though it’s clear to Hitch she’s not worth the trouble. Once Virgil falls for Ally, the film does something interesting: At the beginning, Virgil appears to be the boss with Hitch as his dependent sidekick. Halfway through the film, the main character switches from Virgil to Hitch, making him the hero of the story who must keep his partner under control and out of trouble. I really appreciated the cinematic slight of hand in the reversal of these roles.

Jeremy Irons plays the same, dependable villain as always but the weakest link in the film is Zellweger. Her fickle character becomes an annoying distraction from the main objective of the story. While I understand her character was necessary to cause additional conflict within the storyline, I’m going to blame Harris for miscasting Zellweger. He probably wanted a friend and dependable actor for the part, but Zellweger proved too frumpy and uncharismatic to believe that Harris’s character would drop everything for her. Perhaps if they had cast an actress better suited as a vampish villainess (Sienna Miller, maybe?), the character may have worked.

Viggo Mortensen steals the entire movie out from under Ed Harris by the closing credits. I surmise Harris did this intentionally as he also directed the film, but he certainly reserved the meatiest role for Mortensen, knowing full well that Mortensen could pull it off. Mortensen plays Hitch as the best friend any violent gunslinger could ever have. He’s quiet, calm and rational. The film even reveals his intellectual superiority over Virgil who constantly depends on Hitch to correct his substandard vocabulary. One of the things that will make Everett Hitch an iconic western hero is not his selflessness, his skill or integrity… It’s his gun. You see, Hitch’s weapon of choice is an 8-gauge shotgun. You heard me right, 8-gauge. I didn’t even know a shotgun that large existed and Hitch carries the telephone pole-sized cannon the entire movie. When he uses it, your jaw will hit the ground.

I’ve developed a soft spot for good westerns ever since my dad told me the stories of my Great Great Grandfather… a war-hardened, gun-toting sheriff who kept the peace in Leake County, Mississippi, following the Civil War. I always imagine a little bit of my Great Great Grandfather in the western heroes of the movies. If I could pick a character that could personify my ancestor the most, it would have to be the soft-spoken, caring (but tough) lawman, Everett Hitch. Mortensen’s performance is that good. Although it’s a long shot, I’d like to see Mortensen get an Oscar nomination for his performance in “Appaloosa.”

While many might not appreciate this slow and slightly revisionist western, I’m going to put it up there with “Open Range” and “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly” as one of best. Go to see Ed Harris kick tail, but stay for one of Viggo Mortensen’s best performances.

Rating: 4 and ½ out of 5 stars

Trailer below…

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