Appaloosa

There’s a scene in Unforgiven where Clint Eastwood talks about how, rather than straight gunfights in the street, assassins were more likely to shoot their target coming out of the outhouse. In Ed Harris’ new movie Appaloosa, Harris and co-star Viggo Mortensen kidnap Jeremy Irons after his morning, em, activities.

Cowboy movies in the past 30 years are sort of like Baroque music after Bach died. It’s all been done by guys who were better at it than the modern generation, so most oaters feel warmed over and weak.

Happily, Appaloosa works and feels fresh.

Harris directs and plays Virgil Cole, a hard-nosed Have Gun Will Travel type whose sidekick Everett Hitch (Mortensen) guards his back and occasionally reins him in when he’s gone too far. There’s some serious good chemistry here.

Cole is straightforward and somewhat thick who only seems to be uncomfortable when made aware of his limitations, and at the same time spends time reading Emerson and asking Hitch what various words mean. Hitch is eminently practical, and respectful of Cole’s abilities, almost acting as an apologist.

Cole and Hitch are hired to protect a town from the villainous Randall Bragg (Irons) who has just offed the previous sheriff’s department–though he was smart enough to hide the bodies and deny it, making it impossible to bring him in.

An uneasy peace exists between Cole, Hitch and the town and Bragg and his men, who live outside of town. The peace is unsettled by a witness to the murders and, even more, the arrival of Allison French (played by Renee Zelwegger).

French dresses nicely, and plays piano (laughably badly, though no one seems to notice or care), and quickly latches on to Cole. Before you know it, though, she’s making moves on Hitch. And it doesn’t stop there.

As it turns out, French is one of the more interesting female characters in Westerns history. And Cole’s response is equally interesting and pragmatic. This does not turn into a rather tired love triangle.

In fact, the whole movie is a bunch of interesting events framed by typical Western set-ups, but not in a contrived way either. In other words, it doesn’t seem so much like they were trying to tell a story that was just contrary to Western genre clich├ęs, but rather had a story to tell that simply hadn’t been told before.

The place where a typical Western would end left about 15-20 minutes of the film; that is the action-y climax left a bunch of situations unresolved that ultimately come to a head later.

An engaging, entertaining film. I guess there’s no one in it to power a big release but keep your eyes on your local indie theaters. You’ll be glad you did.

The Boy liked it quite a bit, too.

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