Narrative, 108 min
Directed by Ed Harris
Once upon a time in the American cinema, the western was king. Between the silent era and the late 1970’s, the U.S. film industry churned out thousands of western movies, most of them toward the end of that time starring Clint Eastwood. Not so today, when fans like me have to content ourselves with maybe one or two a year, if we’re lucky. Why did the western fade away? Perhaps the very historical process that saw the West itself vanish finally caught up with the stories told about it. This may not be entirely bad. Now that the western is a rarer thing, it’s often treated with greater care and purpose. Contemporary filmmakers may be interested in reexamining, if not reinventing, the genre, or perhaps using it to say something that will appear fresh or different when spoken through its familiar form.
For instance, two recent films have pondered the role of women in American society by investigating their place in the western’s traditionally male-dominated world. Kevin Costner’s Open Range (2003) introduced a poignant subplot that examined the dilemma of spinster Annette Bening, trapped in a forlorn fronteir town with few prospects for happiness. The recently released Appaloosa, co-written, directed by, and starring Ed Harris, goes it one better by moving the heroine to the very center of the film and making her the axis around which the main story revolves. This is a remarkable thing to do in a film that looks at first like a standard though taut action movie devoted to the friendship between two lawmen, longtime partners Virgil Cole (Harris) and Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen). Summoned to the town of Appaloosa in New Mexico Territory to rescue it from an egotistical, power-hungry rancher aptly named Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons), Cole and Hitch begin their assignment with an obligatory showdown in a saloon with three of Bragg’s men. A terse exchange between the unsmiling lawmen and the drunken, contemptuous cowpokes, some lightning-fast gunplay, and the three baddies lie dead, the town leaders know they’ve hired the right men for the job, and we know we’re watching a western.
Except it’s not so clear-cut after that. Just when it looks like the film has settled down to an extended battle of bullets and nerves between Bragg’s gunhands and the two cool but seriously outnumbered lawmen, the train pulls into the station and out steps the fetching Allie French (Renee Zellweger). She immediately catches the eye of both Hitch and Cole, but it’s Marshall Cole she sets her cap for, and almost before you can say “Appaloosa,” they’re setting up house together. Hitch doesn’t know what to make of the rough-and-tumble Cole’s newfound domesticity. Neither does Cole, nor do we. Allie doesn’t seem to fit anywhere into the scenario of violence and frontier justice that we thought we were going to witness.
And it’s precisely because she doesn’t fit that Appaloosa becomes a fascinating exercise in genre reconstruction. Allie introduces a strange, troubling element into the men’s world, not simply because she’s a domesticating female in an undomesticated environment but because she’s at heart undomesticated herself, uncertain of who she is or what she wants. Zellweger’s Allie defies the western’s normal duality of Woman–virgin or whore, schoolmistress or saloon gal. Dressed like a lady but with only a dollar to her name when she alights from the train, she is so out of place that a bemused Cole asks her point blank at their first meeting if she is a whore. Her answer is no, and it’s truthful as far as it goes–which is not the same as the truth.
But the disrupting influence Allie brings to town has only begun. The feud with Bragg eventually leads to his arrest, trial, and conviction for murder, but two of his hired guns kidnap Allie and force Cole to set Bragg free in exchange for her life. They flee, with her as hostage, Cole and Hitch following close behind. But as the two friends track Bragg’s small party through the desert, Allie’s status as hostage and her role in the escape become increasingly clouded by doubt in their minds, and the rescuers ultimately turn into the ones needing rescue.
As the protagonists struggle to decide what to do, and how to feel, about Allie, the film mirrors their confusion in its attempts to figure out her place in the narrative. She is the mystery at the core of a film that by all normal expectations should not have a mystery. Harris’s and Robert Knott’s intelligent screenplay bends genre rules around her to accommodate her troubling presence, her peculiar character changing from scene to scene not from inconsistency in writing but from the changing perceptions of the men about her, as well as those of the audience. Nothing is ever seen from her point-of-view, nor is the story of why and how she came to Appaloosa ever revealed—she is seen and defined only by the shifting points-of-view and attitudes of others. Allie—her name parsing into “A lie”–resides defiantly unknown and unknowable at the still center of the film’s male-storm of emotions.
The performances are uniformly excellent. Harris is wonderfully convincing as the tough, sternly professional lawman who crumbles into a giggling schoolboy upon finding unexpected love, and he and Zellweger have great chemistry, ironically, as the mismatched lovers. Zellweger’s Allie is an ingenious composition of conflicting impulses—coquettish, restless, romantic, defiant, fearful, and utterly lonely in her struggle to choose the right man to protect her, and her resentment that the world she lives in makes that choice necessary. It is an extremely touching performance. On the other side, Jeremy Irons brings an unexpected dash of effeteness to Bragg, which turns out to be appropriate for a character that, though introduced through a cold-blooded act that marks him as properly ruthless, thereafter expresses his villainy less through brutal intimidation than serpentine charm, emitting the aura of an irresistible opportunist. But, since male bonding is still very much at the forefront of Appaloosa’s purpose, the film stands or falls on the relationship between Harris and Mortensen. Reteamed after their fine work together in 2005’s A History of Violence, they are letter perfect as violence-weary men so used to each others’ ways and moods that they communicate chiefly through looks and nearly invisible gestures. Mortensen hides his boyish looks behind a Buffalo Bill-like goatee and mustache, which only enhance the deceptively lazy manner and the wise half-smile he’s perfected over the years, the latter slyly hinting that he knows a secret both amusing and dangerous not to know.
And the last act belongs to him. Having eluded his pursuers, Bragg returns to Appaloosa to establish himself in the good graces of the townspeople he once terrorized by opening a plush hotel that brings in business. Sadly watching past associations threaten his friend’s happiness, Hitch makes a desperate decision that tests both his courage and the very friendship his act is meant to honor. Harris’s direction, lean and spare throughout, comes the closest to melodrama in these final scenes, but it’s a forgivable lapse since it’s emotionally right and manages not to disturb the delicate tone of the rueful ending.
That this film can be at once so laconic in form and so emotionally convoluted certainly owes much to its source novel’s author, crime novelist Robert B. Parker (best known for the Spenser mysteries), who also contributes the last act’s atmosphere of big-city corruption and the mysterious femme fatale at the center of events. Could Appaloosa be called a feminist western? Most likely not, but it’s a western any feminist should find interesting. Or anyone, for that matter, who appreciates movies that can look at familiar terrain with a fresh understanding of what it means. The western is one of the American cinema’s most ritualistic forms, but Harris and his crew have stretched its horizons–not outward but inward, into the emotional landscapes of its recognizable but mysterious people.