New Line // 2008 // 115 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Dan Mancini (Retired) // January 13th, 2009
Feelings get you killed.
Eight years after his critically-acclaimed biopic about mercurial abstract expressionist painter Jackson Pollock, Ed Harris returns to the director's chair to try his hand at a western. The resulting film -- Appaloosa -- is a mixed bag.
Guns-for-hire Virgil Cole (Ed Harris, The Right Stuff) and Everett Hitch (Vigo Mortensen, A History of Violence) ride into a dusty little town and take up lawmen duties after the previous Marshall is murdered by local land-owner Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons, Die Hard with a Vengeance). Cole and Hitch's quest to bring Bragg to justice, as well as their friendship, is endangered when Cole begins romancing Allison French (Renée Zellweger, Jerry Maguire), a fickle and unscrupulous woman with a hunger for alpha males.
Making a successful genre piece is trickier than it looks. With neither acting nor directing experience in westerns, Ed Harris makes a noble effort with Appaloosa but ultimately fails to deliver a story that congeals satisfactorily around its genre framework. The problem is that Harris over-indulges his thespian love for nuanced characterizations when a little directorial restraint in the name of coherent, to-the-point storytelling would have better served his movie. Subtlety and nuance are wonderful aspirations when making art; they can also be disastrous when forced to wrestle against the dictates of genre. Appaloosa's particular problem is Renée Zellweger's oddly incongruous performance as Allison French. Harris and Zellweger are determined that we should pity Mrs. French as a victim of her own scarred psychology, but her behavior is cartoonishly craven, slutty, and vile. The story would work better if we were allowed to hate her as a villain and pity Harris's Virgil Cole instead. Moreover, the ill-formed and unnecessary complexity surrounding Mrs. French fundamentally undermines Everett Hitch's climactic act of self-sacrifice. Hitch comes across as less noble than he should because Cole comes across as less willfully stupid than he is.
Some have complained that Appaloosa has pacing problems. I don't agree. As action movies go, westerns are, by and large, slow burners. Appaloosa's rhythms are similar to Howard Hawks' Rio Bravo. In both movies, men who are very good at what they do spend much time talking, planning, and assessing next moves in their cat-and-mouse games with arrogant, murderous ranchers. Appaloosa doesn't have a pacing problem so much as a weak climax. Where Rio Bravo thunders to a conclusion with a lengthy gun battle between a dozen or so men, Appaloosa ends with a brief, relatively quiet confrontation that sneaks up on us without much warning. It would be a great ending if, again, the characterization of Mrs. French didn't rob it of emotional oomph.
These showstopper problems aside, there's much to like about Appaloosa. Chief among its charms is that Harris's newness to westerns enables him to avoid many of the visual and narrative clichés that crop up in any genre. For instance, a first act gunfight is brief, surprising, and turns a saloon into a scene of bloody carnage as realistic as anything I've seen in a western. The lead characters look authentically 19th century (right down to the slicked-down center part in Mortensen's hair), but come across less as genre types than as authentic human beings. Harris and Mortensen make a fine duo of gun slinging lawmen. The two men are laconic but witty, Mortensen's Hitch playing a book-smart straight man to Harris's cool-headed, exacting Cole. Harris doesn't overplay Cole's cowboy accent or his lack of education. He delivers a gunman who is stoic, hard, and (almost) all business, but also human. Mortensen plays every physical nuance of his lean, angular second banana with supreme skill; even the way he rests his rifle across his lap suggests Hitch's professional confidence in his ability to kill. The two men are entirely believable as business partners and, more importantly, friends. At its heart, Appaloosa wants to be a close study of that friendship. Unfortunately, Harris's direction unnecessarily muddied the narrative waters.
Appaloosa's DVD presentation is nearly as disappointing as its narrative stumbles. In an apparent nod to the way things were done in 1999, the disc inexplicably contains widescreen and full frame versions of the movie. The result of packing two transfers of a nearly two-hour film onto a single dual-layered disc is an image that falls short of the quality we expect from DVD in 2009. Colors are occasionally bold and accurate, but are more often marred by limp black levels. The DVD's cover art nearly fetishes Harris's and Mortensen's angular, craggy faces as well as the oily texture of Harris's pistol, but little of that fine detail comes across in the transfer. Close-ups don't have as much texture as they should, while wider shots sometimes border on hazy. The beauty of the movie's sweeping vistas, dusty town, and excellent production and costume designs are diminished by an image that, while it isn't an eye-sore, would look better if provided a higher bit rate. While detail is lacking, other compression artifacts are thankfully absent.
The Dolby 5.1 surround track handles the abundant dialogue well, while gunshots are sharp, loud, and extremely realistic.
As if it isn't bad enough that two transfers of the film are crammed onto the disc, precious space is wasted on a bundle of mediocre supplements. Harris and writer-producer Robert Knott provide a drab feature-length commentary, as well as optional talk tracks for half a dozen brief deleted scenes. There are also four electronic press kit-style featurettes that cover the film's production, set design, historical accuracy, and give a tip-of-the-hat to cinematographer Dean Semler (Dances with Wolves).
As a rule of thumb, voice-over narration is to be avoided whenever possible. Appaloosa begins and ends with voice-overs by Everett Hitch that are unnecessary, inartful (at the end, he actually tells us that he's riding off into the sunset), and that drain tension from the climactic gunfight. Axing the voice-overs wouldn't fix all of Appaloosa's problems, but it would make it a better movie.
Appaloosa is a near miss. While it has a lot going for it in terms of both style and substance, some major missteps by Ed Harris render it a mostly forgettable genre exercise.
Guilty as charged.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Line
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 115 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Additional Scenes with commentary
* Cinema Verdict Review