The Western is the archetypal American story, the progenitor of the hard-boiled and noir schools. Few genres can get away with running the same tropes past an audience over and over again as well as the Western, when it’s done right.
Appaloosa is based on a novel written by Robert B. Parker as a break in the routine of writing Spenser novels. Any movie starring Ed Harris (who also directed), Viggo Mortensen, Jeremy Irons, and Renee Zellweger has to be good, right? (Well, maybe not Renee Zellweger. More on her later.)
Harris and Mortensen play the standard wandering lawmen, moving across the West to clean up towns as needed. Irons is the ruthless cattle baron. We know as soon as Irons shoots the old marshal down in cold blood two minutes into the movie that there’s going to be a final confrontation. The fun is watching the twists and turns of getting them there. And there’s a lot of it, and of them.
The laconic dialog Parker has made almost an affectation in his recent Spenser novels serves the characters well here. Harris’s Virgil Cole and Mortensen’s Everett Hitch are classic Western sidekicks; you can imagine Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas in these roles fifty years ago. They understand each other without having to say a word, and both are good enough actors to make sure the audience understands, too.
As director, Harris was fanatical about authenticity. The window glass is period quality, and Harris makes several subtle references to it. (Having a horse and rider pass by the window while filming Cole indoors, to let an attentive viewer see the distortions caused by flaws in the glass is one example.) A tan line on Martensen’s forehead when he removes his hat. Nothing too obvious, set out like Easter eggs for those with their heads wholly in the movie.
Irons is his usual excellent self as the heavy, menacing and greasy at the same time. Lance Henriksen makes a brief appearance in the role Richard Boone would have played in the Lancaster-Douglas version and does his usual yeoman service.
It’s Renee Zellweger who’s the fly in Appaloosa’s ointment. The character is obviously there as a plot device, to cause friction down the road. It’s to everyone’s credit she doesn’t cause the overly predictable plot complications, save one, which actually works well for advancing the story. The problem is, there was no reason for her character to be in the town of Appaloosa in the first place, and there’s certainly no reason for the hard-bitten Virgil Cole to fall for her so quickly.
Let’s face it, Renee Zellweger is not an attractive woman. Maybe if you saw her in the mall she’d look okay compared to the overweight, belly shirt-wearing trailer trash coming out of the NASCAR Store, but not by movie standards. Even for a movie that works so diligently for authenticity, a woman who looks like her is not going to land a man like Virgil Cole with so little effort, even if she’s the local gold standard. Salma Hayek, okay. Even dirtied up after a long train ride, she’d make a man accept a lot of life complications. Not Renee Zellweger. (IMDB research shows Diane Lane was the original choice for the part. She could let a man agree to some complications, too. It still would have been nice to know why the character came to town at all.)
Still, a movie well worth seeing. The acting is superb, and the story goes in directions that aren’t always expected, with twists to make the less than unexpected palatable. A lot about Appaloosa deserves more than the 6.9 IMDB gives it. It’s a solid 7.5 without Zellweger.