Quick-draw critics are itchy to pull a trigger and put modern Westerns in a pine box. But don’t liken the genre to tumbleweeds just yet, not when Open Range, Brokeback Mountain, The Proposition, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and 3:10 to Yuma (2007) all are among this decade’s best.
Appaloosa need not be nihilistic, postmodern or hybridized like those to join their ranks. Those are bro-mantic undertones, not overtones, mind you. Save for flecks of nudity and bad language, Appaloosa’s quaint, pokey traditionalism would be right at home in the Hays Code era.
It just introduces so little danger. There’s not much pistol or psychological damage in a peculiarly pokey probe of gunman conduct, as Appaloosa takes too many languid spells en route to a mentally rousing finish.
The protagonist partnership between Viggo Mortensen and Ed Harris lacks the lived-in feel Kevin Costner and Robert Duvall brought to Range. It feels like a one-sided effort from Mortensen — as if Harris stretched himself too thin directing, producing, co-writing and emulating Costner in the worst way possible with a warbled end-credits song.
A soldier who left the service to explore his soul, Everett Hitch (Mortensen) has done well for himself. He’s the right-hand man to Virgil Cole (Harris), a legendarily tough-minded lawman specializing in cleaning up towns with unsavory criminals.
In Appaloosa, that’s the well-connected Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons, marble-mouthing his way through another American accent). He shoots three men in cold blood, sauntering back into his house with the shuffle of someone going back to bed.
With town rule in their hands, Virgil and Everett go to work on Bragg and his men. But what Everett dubs “the unforeseen” quickly complicates their tactics. Allie French (Renee Zellweger) is a piano player who catches weary Virgil’s eye and sets him to settling down in Appaloosa.
Virgil carries a full clip, but he’s an empty shell. Harris’s brief flicker of life comes as Virgil is simultaneously romanced by the idea of keeping peace and making it for himself.
From there, the plot takes some turns that bend Appaloosa into a more-philosophical variation on 3:10 to Yuma, allow Zellweger to wield some wicked, abstract weapons of Allie’s own and afford acceleration of the film’s pace.
It seems unfathomable for a character that leans so often to carry a film on his shoulders, but Everett does so. Mortensen is an actor specializing in specific subtlety for each role. In A History of Violence, it was his eyes. In The Lord of the Rings, it was his posture. In Appaloosa, it’s how his 8-gauge shotgun becomes an extension of Everett’s personality.
Everett uses its cocked hammer as his salutation in tense conversations. When he does speak, hearing Mortensen utter phrases such as “got kinda fitful” is divine, and, oh, how he masters the body-language art of those telltale leans.
It’s a commanding performance from the actor that, in what’s bound to be a packed field for supporting-actor nods, should be remembered come Oscar time.
Mortensen engenders enough good will to sustain pokey patches until the intriguing notion at Appaloosa’s end: How will these gunslingers maintain civility after their quarry creates so much chaos, carnage and, most importantly, commerce?
It’s a modern look at outsourcing and progress through a Western prism that just doesn’t start early enough in Appaloosa. There’s right, and there’s right, and not quite do the two meet.