This is neither a Sea Adventure story nor an Action Girl movie, but I know some of you like Westerns and this was an awesome enough surprise that I want to share.
I went into it with some fear and trembling. I've long ago stopped thinking of Viggo Mortensen as Aragorn and have started to associate him with David Cronenberg. Which isn't necessarily a bad thing, but I've got to be in the mood for Cronenberg, and really, I'm just not there very often.
So, while this isn't Cronenberg, I'd sort of gotten this idea in my head that it was going to be all dark, psychological, and ultra-violent. Totally unfair, but there I was. Fortunately, there wasn't anything else showing that my brother-in-law and I wanted to watch tonight. Otherwise, I never would've known what I was missing.
Roger Ebert compared it to Lonesome Dove and I suppose that's fair to a certain extent. He also objected to its being called a "buddy movie" (on the grounds that its main characters are far deeper friends than mere "buddies") and that's even more fair. In fact, the depth of that friendship is exactly what Appaloosa is all about.
The story is fairly conventional Western fare. Virgil Cole (Ed Harris, who also co-wrote the screenplay from Robert B. Parker's novel and directed the film) and Everett Hitch (Mortensen) are gunslingers. They go from town to lawless town, selling their skills to otherwise helpless citizens who are being put upon by villainous men. The villainous man in the town of Appaloosa is Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons as the bad guy I've always known he should be, but have never seen him pay off).
Bragg is an evil cattle baron whose men terrorize the town. Cole and Hitch have to take him down to protect the little guys. It's a classic Western plot, but I was fearful enough that this was going to be some kind of dark, psychotic, neo-Western that I was comforted by the traditional aspects of it. It's a classic Western in other ways too. From the soundtrack to the themes about coping in lawless times, everything about Appaloosa feels right and good.
That's not to say that it's dull or overly familiar though. Renée Zellweger shows up in town with nothing but her luggage and a dollar to her name. She's not your typical Western gal. In fact, wherever she's from, she comes across like an Eastern transplant. Claiming to be widowed, she plays the piano and Cole - who takes an instant liking to her - arranges for her to play at the local hotel in exchange for room and board.
I should talk about Cole and Hitch here for a minute, because their initial interaction with Zellweger's Allie French perfectly summarizes their characters and their relationship with each other. Hitch sees Allie first as she gets off the train. He's obviously attracted to her and he follows her through town until she goes into a restaurant where Cole is eating breakfast. Hitch goes inside, but Allie and Cole are already flirting with each other.
I kept waiting for a conflict to arise between Hitch and Cole over Allie or something else. Cole obviously loves and respects Hitch, but he's also clearly the "lead stallion" to borrow a metaphor from the movie. Hitch is the smarter of the two - in fact, Cole constantly has to ask Hitch to help him pick his words - but he quietly allows Cole to take the lead, not only in their professional lives, but also with Allie and really everything else as well. He never complains. He never begrudges. He's Cole's friend and that's that. And Cole reciprocates; just in a different way. It's a beautiful, refreshing relationship.
I have to sidebar here for a second to talk about how perfect Renée Zellweger is as Allie. She's pretty - the prettiest girl in Appaloosa - but she's believably pretty. Nicole Kidman or Angelina Jolie would've been out of place in this movie.
Hitch spends some time with a whore and the first time we see her, it's across the room as he's exchanging glances with her. She's dark and lovely and after seeing Allie ignore Hitch for Cole, my first thought here was, "Good. He's going to get the better-looking girl after all." But later on, when we get to see the girl closer, she's still good-looking, but she's also a bit world-weary and her teeth are funny. I don't mean that as an objectifying judgment, I'm just saying that she's a normal, good-looking woman. Allie is prettier; still the best catch in town.
And it's right that she be so. Even though I rooted for Hitch and part of me wanted to see him with the best-looking gal (okay, that is shallow and objectifying), I ultimately would have been disappointed in where the story went with Allie and Cole. That's all I'll say about that, but their's is an interesting relationship, though not as interesting as the affect it has on Cole and Hitch's. In the end, it's all about Cole and Hitch and friendship (and trying to take down Jeremy Irons at the top of his game).
Two other random bits of Awesomeness:
- Lance Henriksen absolutely disguises himself in the role of another gunfighter. There was one point where I thought, "Is that Lance Henriksen?" But I quickly followed that thought with, "Nawww," and didn't think anything else about it until I saw his name in the credits.
- Ed Harris sings the second song in the closing credits and sounds remarkably like Nick Cave. If the Borders next to the theater wasn't notorious for never having the soundtracks I impulsively want to buy after seeing movies like Walk Hard and Speed Racer, I would've gone over and picked up the Appaloosa soundtrack right then.
Five out of five dead ranch hands.