Friday, October 03, 2008

'Appaloosa': Wild Horses Couldn't Keep Me Away

Its fall and time for another attempt at a classic Western. Last fall there were two such attempts (Russell Crowe's "3:10 to Yuma" and the more mystical 'The Outlaw Jesse James'). This fall's attempt at this genre of film is Ed Harris's (director) 'Appaloosa'. With an all star cast of Ed himself playing the City Marshall Virgil Cole, and Viggo Mortensen playing his sidekick 'Hitch', with Jeremy Iron's playing the aptly named bad dude Bragg, and Rene Zellwegger thrown in as the love interest, this film doesn't lack for star power. It is also immaculately and accurately filmed and clocks in under two hours with an R rating (its a Western, so there are some varmits that need shootin' right from the start).

The plot is pretty simple, as in any good Western. Westerns most often attempt to reduce things to the lowest common denominator--- basic human instincts (lust, greed, power, jealousy etc.), basic character developments (the bad guys are truly bad, the good guys, while not perfect, are way better), basic plots (the Sheriff must clean up the town, and vies with his side kick for the only eligible woman in town), and basic dialogue (the only truly memorable line in the film is when Virgil is lying on his back shot in the knee and says to Hitch who, along with two bad guys are also shot-- 'Well darn, everyone could shoot'). While the Sheriff would like to learn to use big words like 'sequestered', it is a work in progress, as he reads Emerson and tries to achieve a vocabulary transplant. Things are kept simple, rather like the spartan existence in an old Western town. Things are dusty, dirty. There is drinking, herding, shooting, lusting-- all in a day's span. Basic.

What makes this Western different is not only the quality of the acting, but the interesting menage a trois going on between the widow Mrs. Allison French and the Sheriff and his Deputy. Only the Deputy is smart enough to steer mostly clear of this woman, not only because Virgil has dibs on her, but because as Everett Hitch tells Virgil, this woman simply wants to be with the lead stallion-- whoever that may be. She's not exactly likely to be the faithful type if one slips from one's position of power. This sagebrush saga has all the typical elements of the classic Western including a neat resolution of the plot's tensions at the end.

I will not spoil the ending of the movie for you, but I will say this-- If you liked 'Lonesome Dove' the award winning TV series, and you liked old movies like 'High Noon' or more recent films like 'Unforgiven', this movie is right up your alley partner. It's better than either of the two Westerns offered last fall. So hitch up your wagon and get yourself over to Appaloosa. You've got to love a film that ends with an old fashioned testosteroned honor challenge!


TS Harrison said...

Great review. I saw this tonight, I took my dad who raised me on good ol' fashion westerns (God bless him), and we were not disappointed.
FYI - I've been reading your blog for over a year and this is my first time to commment. So may I also say "thank you"; not only for this effort, but your books and your ministry.

bobbym said...

Ben, sorry to disagree on this one, but the Mrs. and I saw Appaloosa last night and I found it to be a tad disappointing.

First of all, because I read the book last month I was aware of what was missing in the story, and that something was dialog.

As spare and compact as it can be, the discussions that Robert Parker's characters engage in is what really drives the story, and the movie just doesn't do justice to this fact, probably for brevity's sake. As it was I was checking my watch after about 90 minutes into the film.

In the book much of this communication is pithy, prescient, funny and deep at the same time, rounding out the characters motives and actions so that we can understand what drives the action.

Secondly, the transition between scenes was brutally choppy. One scene we see the characters having a daylight discussion, which then segues into a scene of Hitch thoughtfully pondering late at night, then jarringly we go to another daylight scene. Even my wife, who is an emotional movie watcher and not prone to the critical views that I can take, made a comment about it. Further scenes were just as sloppily transitioned, making the movie appear to be a "made for television" production, complete with commercial breaks. Harris is a talented actor, but not so great as a director.

Thirdly, as much as I admired Rene Z. in "Cold Mountain", another period flick, in "Appaloosa" she was dreadful. Her character was smirky and phony, hammy and obnoxious, all at the same time. The Mrs. French that I was familiar with in the book was much more composed and quietly desperate, vaguely aware of her own motives while trying to sublimate them in the hopes of convincing herself of her own worth.

Harris was a little too giddy to my way of thinking, but Viggo was excellent as Hitch, cementing him in MY mind as a real acting talent. Jeremy Irons was all glower and threats as Bragg, a fitting bad guy.

But there was one curious discontinuity...did you notice the absence of young men in the story? Despite the short life span of men in the old west, all we see are guys who could hold an AARP card were they to grace our streets today. In reality, if a man reached fifty in those days he was plagued by arthritis and creaky knees, but in "Appaloosa" these guys were the fastest and the baddest. Pretty funny, if you ask me!

But, on an entertainment level I guess the movie delivered, judging from the reactions in the theater, AND from your reaction as well. At best I would say that it ranks as a "B" movie and not in the same league as "3:10 To Yuma" or even "Open Range" from a few years ago. My prediction is that "Appaloosa" will be forgotten within the month and will grace the walls of Blockbuster before Christmas.

My advice for possible viewers is to wait for the DVD release. At least then you can get the, now ubiquitous, "Special Features" to enhance your viewing pleasure.

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Bobby: Yes Parker's novel is much richer, but it is an unfair comparison. This is like comparing Tolkien's Lord of the Rings novels to the film-- its no contest, the novels are richer and more descriptive. But I do take your point about some of the choppiness, which I take to be deliberate, and we could have used more scenes like the jail scene where Virgil is reading Emerson, and a bit more dialogue as well. As for Rene, well I thought she played the role of the inconstant woman desperately seeking security and protection in a brutal world pretty well. I agree its not a Cole Mountain caliber performance, but not bad. It is the character who is unlikeable, not the actor, I would say.


Ben W.

Thomas McKenzie said...

I love westerns. I love Viggo and Ed. I even love the western formula. And I hated this movie.

Your post is well written and you make good points. But, I think you are totally wrong. This ia an utterly forgettable film, and does not deserve to be mentioned alongside Unforgiven. Put it in the category of "Open Range." A few good moments, but basically a slave to the genre.

Of course, I am in the solid minority on this one.