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Appaloosa – Movie Review

February 9, 2009 Written by JP    [Font too small?]

They just don’t make many westerns anymore, and that’s a shame as far as I’m concerned. The old west played an important role in the development of the United States, and I believe that tales from that era have much to teach us.

Appaloosa is a new western with an old feel. As the film begins, we’re introduced to two veteran gunmen, played by Ed Harris and Viggo Mortensen, who are riding into the fear-ridden town of Appaloosa. This New Mexican township has been overrun by a well educated sociopath (Jeremy Irons) and his loyal gangs of thugs. They thieve, vandalize, and even kill as they please. There’s nobody left to stop them since they’ve just killed the local marshal.

We know that there’s a battle a brewin’ between the flawed, but decent gunmen and the charming, but heartless villains. But, this film doesn’t revolve around well orchestrated gun battles. Don’t get me wrong, there is a fair share of bloodshed and guns are a constant in this world. It is the characters, however, that interest second-time director and star of the film Ed Harris. He wants us to get to know the conflicted morals of the “good guys” and how evil draws its power from those who have no code but self interest.

The film also includes a love story of sorts. Renee Zellweger plays the woman that steals Ed Harris’ heart. In westerns, female characters sometimes amount to little more than window dressing. They’re beautiful diversions from the harsh landscape and grimy male characters who otherwise populate the desert landscapes. This is not the case here. At first, Renee’s character seems to be just another pretty face, but we learn differently as the story unfolds.

I think Appaloosa succeeds in meeting certain goals. It provides three strong lead characters and performances. Ed Harris, Viggo Mortensen and Jeremy Irons all have the pleasure of playing roles that are complex and well defined. Their characters are genuinely interesting to watch and listen to.

I also like the bare bones realism that the filmmakers decided upon. At one point, a key gun battle begins and ends in a matter of seconds. Viggo Mortensen’s character observes the brevity of the exchange, “That was quick”. Ed Harris replies, “Yeah. Everybody could shoot”. That gives a glimpse into the concise and often snappy dialogue that fills this picture. It’s not trying to dazzle with stylized violence or an unconvincingly clever script. It just wants us to believe that this all really could have happened.

On the downside, I really didn’t enjoy Renee Zellweger’s performance. I think she was miscast, which was somewhat distracting for me. I also felt as though I knew where the film was going most of the time. A few more surprises could have elevated the caliber of this story.

All in all, I can’t say this is a great western. But I can say that I did enjoy taking a trip back to the late 1800s with these characters in this story. This motion picture gives us great vistas, an old-fashioned train ride, a battle of good vs. evil, beautiful horses and even a cougar makes an appearance! That’s more than enough to satisfy the little boy inside of me.

Appaloosa is Rated R for some violence, a few curse words and a brief seen of partial nudity. I think it’s a pretty mild R rating. One fewer curse word (of which there were perhaps 4 or 5 total) and it probably would have received a PG-13 rating. It is currently available on DVD.

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