Monday, June 24, 2013

Appaloosa (2008)

Director: Ed Harris                                        Writer: Robert Knott & Ed Harris
Film Score: Jeff Beal                                    Cinematography: Dean Semler
Starring: Ed Harris, Viggo Mortensen, Renée Zellweger and Jeremy Irons

A few days ago I made some disparaging remarks about modern westerns, to the effect that there have been mighty few good ones in the last twenty years. I still hold to that, but Appaloosa is a real discovery, one that I hadn’t heard of and was delighted to learn how entertaining it is. This is Ed Harris’s second attempt at directing, after his portrayal of Jackson Pollock in his biopic Pollock. He does a terrific job here, not only with his direction but with his contribution to the script. Based on the 2005 western by mystery novelist Robert B. Parker, the film is intelligent, humorous, and though the premise is fairly clichéd, there’s still a lot of suspense to it.

When the marshal of the town of Appaloosa is killed outright by Jeremy Irons, the town fathers hire Ed Harris and Viggo Mortensen as lawmen who agree to protect the town as long as they make the laws. Meanwhile, Renée Zellweger comes into town as a widow and she falls for Harris, attempting to turn him into a family man. When one of the hands who witnessed the murder decides to testify against Irons, Harris arrests him and keeps him in jail until the trial. Just before the trial, two gunmen that Harris knows ride into town, coy about what they’re doing there but obviously in the pay of Irons. When Irons is convicted and being taken by train to be hanged, the two gunmen show up at a watering stop with Zellweger, threatening to kill her if they don’t get Irons. Of course Harris give up Irons, and then begins the hunt for both Irons and Zellweger.

Harris’s character is quite enjoyable. He’s the fastest gunman around, he likes to read Emerson, and prides himself on his extensive vocabulary. And when he doesn’t know what a word means, Mortensen is there to help him. The two had worked together in David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence and Harris offered him the part of his deputy and apprentice. Cinematographer Dean Semler was a great addition to the crew. The Australian cameraman had filmed and handful of westerns including Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves. The film score by Jeff Beal is not very memorable, but he had done the score for Pollack and so Harris hired him again.

I have to say, this was a very pleasant surprise. Harris as well, knew what he was up against in going into the making of this film. “You can count on one hand, or maybe half a hand, the number of Westerns that were box office successes in the recent past,” he told Entertainment Weekly. Unfortunately the film received mixed reviews and doesn’t really have the high-intensity action sequences of something like 3:10 to Yuma or Open Range that would make it more popular with a younger audience. Appaloosa is a thinking person’s western, which means it’s very, very good. But with a modern audience who doesn’t want to think and is only interested in visceral experience, it was never destined to have the box-office draw to match its artistic success.

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