HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

November 10, 2008
Now Showing

Appaloosa

John Turner
Appaloosa is worth seeing and that's the main attribute one needs to know about it. The thing to do with Ed Harris's new western is simply to sit down and take it in.

The plot isn't enthralling, but that doesn't much matter. Good guys are hired by community leaders to clean up a town in the grip of a very bad guy. You've seen the tale often before. But its staleness doesn't get in the way of a film that presents friendship as tellingly as Appaloosa does. Truth is, it adds to it in a classic way.

Virgil Cole (Ed Harris) and Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen) are gunmen who hire themselves out as enforcers of the law. They have a somewhat different vision of what the law is. Virgil believes in it with a childlike simplicity, whereas Everett sees it as a convenient support for what they do. But as with every other difference between them, their varying views of legality never get in the way of their complete loyalty to one another.

They are not bullies. They don't prefer to kill other men. It's just that they continually put themselves in situations where they can't do anything else. And, then, they do it very well.

We are led to believe that Appaloosa would have been just one more assignment in a long-running saga were it not for that always complicating feature of western heroism -- a woman. Allison French, a comely young widow, comes to town with just a single dollar in her pocket, and Virgil falls for her as he never has for another woman. She is neatly dressed, speaks correctly, and is clean. And for Virgil, whose previous female companionship has been limited to squaws and whores, that's enough.

Everett sees pretty quickly that Allison's character doesn't match up to her bodily neatness. But his support for Virgil is subtle enough that he understands she provides his partner with something he longs for deeply and that he's not likely to get ever again. So, he goes along.

Virgil is not a simpleton and he discovers over the course of the film what Allison is. But, then, there's still the cleanness, and the well prepared meals, and the comfort of an orderly house. And he wants them, despite his knowledge that he can't count on Allison one minute past the time when he's no longer top dog in town. You're unlikely to find a more clear-eyed, mature depiction of what matters in everyday life, and we would all be healthier if we took greater account of it.

It seems to be a daring thing lately to make a film that relies on interesting characters and fine acting. The four principals here, Ed Harris, Viggo Mortensen, Rene Zellweger, and Jeremy Irons do their work as well as you can imagine it being done. Just watching them play off against one another would be more than worth the price of admission even if there were no plot at all. But the plot in Appaloosa does just what it needs to do, and not a whit more.

Restraint is written all over this production, and I wish we had a Hollywood that understood its value far more than it does.


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