Appaloosa is good old-fashioned western. With his movie, director and star Ed Harris obviously wanted to pay tribute to the classic Hollywood style of film making, rather than making a revisionist western. So in the final moments gunman Everett Hitch literally rides off into the sunset. But at the same time Harris has a shot at realism with his action scenes, which are rather short but marked by a cold, clinical brutality.
The first scene sets the tone for the entire movie. A town Marshal and his two deputies are killed in cold blood by a rancher when they want to arrest two of his men. The year is 1882, the territory New Mexico, the premise a classic conflict between a rancher and townspeople who no longer want to be at the mercy of corruption and despotism. The post-Civil War era at the frontier, was above all the time of the Marshals. Some of them were faithful servants of the powerful elite, others were more independent figures who became legends in their own rights. Wyatt Earp may serve as an example. The citizens of the town of Appaloosa hire two professional lawmen in the Wyatt Earp vein, Virgil Cole and his partner Everett Hitch, who are asked to re-install law and order in the town and its surroundings. They’re energetic and pretty ruthless, but run up against a new kind of corruption and high-handedness: their major opponent, Randall Bragg (the rancher who killed the Marshal and his deputies), is granted full pardon by one of his relatives, the president of the United States.
Appaloosa was based on a 2005 novel by Robert B. Parker, best known for his Spenser books. Unlike the revisionist westerns of the early seventies, Appaloosa is not demythologizing the period and the people it describes, but it isn’t glorifying them either: the three main characters all have their shady sides: Virgil is a short-tempered, self-righteous man who easily becomes violent when things won’t go his way; he’ll eventually stay with Allie, because “he has never seen a woman like her”, even though he knows she’ll sleep with anybody in his absence. Everett is the more intellectual of the two partners, but he’s also the more uncompromising one: unlike Virgil, he cannot live with the idea of a corrupt man like Randall Bragg being granted a full pardon. Before riding off into the sunset, he kills Bragg in a duel. This duel at the end of Appaloosa is all but heroic: Everett Hitch knows he’s a far better shot than his opponent and shooting Bragg comes close to cold-blooded murder. Ironically, it’s this travesty of justice, of everything the two men ever stood for, that gives Virgil and Allie the chance to lead a peaceful life in the town of Appaloosa.
This is a fine example of the genre, made by a director, scored by a composer, and played by actors who all love the genre. My Darling Clementine (1946, John Ford) and Warlock (1959, Edward Dmytrick) are no doubt among Harris’ favorite movies. For those of us who love the genre as much as Harris does, it’s a pleasure to watch, but some (especially younger) viewers may find it too deliberately paced. The script is rather thin, Virgil’s love story practically the only diversion from the main conflict. The three leading actors, Harris, Mortensen and Irons, are all equally marvelous, but I wasn’t too fond of Zellweger. She’s not a bad actress, but her fleshy face and acting mannerisms (she’s becoming more and more the Meryl Streep of our times) don’t really fit into a western. Those shots at realism occasionally feel a bit uneasy in combination with the classic style of film making: both set and costume design are breathtaking, but the movie looks a bit too clean, too stylized to be really convincing. The West was a lot dirtier than the image we get here, and it's this uneasy combination which prevents the movie from being truly great. But it's an awful lot of fun to watch.