“Appaloosa”: How the West was Mediocre

Lounging lawmen.

Even they're wondering when something's going to happen.

Only a Western could have a name like Appaloosa, and so this film is a Western that follows two roaming lawmen for hire, played by Ed Harris and Viggo Mortensen. The film is full of characters that want to be colorful and interesting, but they also want to be brooding and serious, which works most of the time, and needed to work all of the time since the story is really only a way to examine the three main characters’ traits. The score by Jeff Beal uses a classic western feel with a James Newton Howard strangeness (that gets a big unintentional laugh when Renee Zelwegger appears), which I guess should suggest to us that Harris, also the director, is trying to turn the Western on its head.

The problem is the film begins creating a wonderful character in Harris’s Virgil Cole only to peak out at about the halfway point with a violent action that’s bold for the character that when the film neither delves into or cares to explain the psychological reasonings we stop caring what the film has to say about him. After that it’s no longer Cole’s film but becomes about the people that surround Cole.

Mortensen as Everett Hitch, Cole’s deputy, is about as honorable a deputy as ever one could find. Renee Zelwegger as Cole’s fiancee, Allison French, is about one of the most dishonorable of love interests one could ever find. It all creates for some interesting dilemmas in Cole’s life, that could have been far more interesting if the film didn’t feel the need to push the main character into the background as the central situation develops.

Zelwegger herself is most interesting, and very sexy, in a scene involving a symbolic unfinished house — no walls, not the best place for a discreet seduction — otherwise she’s kind of annoying. At one point Cole says she has fire, instead she comes off like a nagging wife…let’s see some of the fire Renee!

Jeremy Irons plays the villainous Bragg, who starts the film off with the only crime we see in the film. Otherwise he sneers like any villain, and his performance comes off far too calculated to be interesting. You can tell how he’s going to react before he does, which makes him not very dangerous. Hidden away as a great gunfighter, Ring Shelton, is Lance Henrickson, who should have been given Iron’s role, cause he’s dangerous!

Fortunately most of the acting saves some of these flaws and allows for some enjoyment. Sadly there are two other problems: shoddy editing. People start to move in one shot, then in the next are standing still only to begin moving again. Heads careen from one position to the next from one shot to the next…all very amateur mistakes.

The other problem is, for as smart as the script tends to be, it still has to hit us over the head with ideas and character traits that we already pick up through dialogue or interaction. For instance the book end voice overs are simply unnecessary and laughable (Does Hitch need to tell us he’s riding of into the sunset…as he rides off into the sunset?) Or when Cole and Hitch share a nice conversation just before a shoot out is about to occur, then Allison comes into the room and spells out precisely what the other two were just talking about…really unnecessary. This occurs several times throughout.

The direction is smart enough. Harris keeps the field wide in the beginning and brings us closer to actor’s faces as things heat up. He directs with a nice visual flair. But most every main street in every town they enter seems only to be littered with the main characters, except for a group of kids that seem to appear at certain times, i.e. when Harris wants us to be extra curious about something.

It’s a mixed bag, only because it could have been far better than it was. In the end we’re left with a character whose story doesn’t quite fill him in that he’s our main character and really doesn’t allow him to be. Bold choices are forgotten for a tamer version of the greatness that lied in the next draft.

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