As actors, Ed Harris (2007's "Gone Baby Gone
") and Viggo Mortensen (2007's "Eastern Promises
") are well-suited for westerns, their tough, weathering faces and laid-back macho posturing only complementing their arresting ruggedness. Why Harris, in his directorial follow-up to 2000's Oscar-winning "Pollock," chose to adapt Robert Parker's novel, "Appaloosa," for his venture into the gasping genre is a question left unanswered. The screenplay by Harris and Robert Knott is meandering and underdeveloped, and the plot to go along with it is plodding and trite, adding up to nothing but a lot of empty strands that go nowhere.
In the dusty New Mexico Territory, circa 1882, best friend drifters Virgil Cole (Ed Harris) and Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen) arrive in the tiny burg of Appaloosa just in time to police the place back into shape. Believing in rightful justice but not above mowing down anyone who continues to defy the law, Virgil and Everett set about putting rancher Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons) in jail for the murder of Marshall Jack Bell (Bobby Jauregui). When Bragg's gang of cronies kidnap Virgil's dame, new-gal-in-town Allison French (Renee Zellweger), threatening her life if they do not let Bragg go free, they have no choice for to carry out their demands. Virgil's about to find, though, that Allison isn't quite as innocent and faithful as she puts on.
Westerns in the twenty-first century are a tough act to pull off. In the right hands, they can become transcendent2007's "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
" is the most recent example of thisbut in the wrong, they can turn out like the overridingly dull "Appaloosa." The characters are ciphers rather than people, impossible to care too much about. The cinematography by Dean Semler (2008's "Get Smart
") is forgettable, lacking the appropriate scope and visual sweep. The plot never finds focus, with the narrative seemingly wrapping up multiple times before pressing forward on new tangents. And the ending, not really solving anything or giving its protagonists solid arcs, only serves to punctuate how pointless the whole thing has been.
The unorthodox romantic subplot between Virgil, Allison and any other man she willingly sleeps with also fails to add up, but at least it puts a spin on the typical western love story. Allison isn't a whore, per se, but she is unabashedly loose, at first flirtatious and then going further with anyone who she believes might be able to better her finances and future. In one scene, she unsuccessfully comes onto Everett even as her home with Virgil is in the midst of being built"You're with Virgil, and so am I," Everett tells her, suggesting in a 19th-century sort of way that maybe there's more to their friendship than meets the eyeand in another, she suggestively has her way with her captors. When Virgil figures out who Allison really is, he doesn't throw her to the curb, but agrees to carry on their relationship as long as she'll have him. While listing to Everett all of her attributes, one of them is a humdinger: "She chews her food nice." Allison also has a tendency to play "Camptown Races" on the piano at inappropriate times, but that isn't brought up so much as it's simply cause for a couple unintentional laughs in the audience.
In a film with so little going for it outside of the performances, Ed Harris, Viggo Mortensen and Renee Zellweger do their best to raise the lackluster material. Their attempts are in vain, but they do a nice job with what they're given. Zellweger's curious role as Allison French is easily the most demanding in that she somehow remains likable even as she lies, deceives, and finally owns up to her shallow ways. That Harris' Virgil opts to stay with her leaves one questioning what has occurred in his past that has left him such a pushover. We never find out, because the film doesn't seem interested in exploring the characters with any satisfactory depth. These days, westerns are a dying breed, uncommonly found in multiplexes. "Appaloosa" is the latest reason why.