Several months after the film Appaloosa opened elsewhere, it finally made it to Maine, where I saw it recently as a member of an audience of 6.
I wish I could say that I liked the film, and that it didn’t deserve the fate of only having six viewers on a cold Maine Wednesday night, but I thought it failed to do what more adventurous recent westerns have done, which is to incorporate elements of traditional westerns while reinvigorating them, acknowledging its roots but moving beyond them to create something that is as much about the present moment as it is about the past.
Even a self-proclaimed “throwback” western set explicitly in the Old West (a title places us in the 1880s, but I’m not sure of the exact year) can comment on the present moment. Recent westerns such as 3:10 to Yuma have used the old west setting to comment on contemporary America, particularly the war in Iraq (e.g., Yuma’s exploration of the “stay the course” philosophy).
At the beginning of Appaloosa, I thought we might be headed in that more allegorical direction. When Virgil Cole (Ed Harris) and Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen) arrive in town, they convince the town officials to sign a document basically giving the two the legal authority to create and enforce all of the town’s laws, a sort of allegorical version of Congress capitulating to the Bush administration and enacting similar blank check authority in administering the war in Iraq. The suggestion at the beginning of the film is that such a willing abandonment of checks and balances might have unforeseen consequences, that Virgil Cole’s brand of justice might produce ambivalent results, and that Appaloosa might venture into interesting territory by commenting on contemporary events.
But that doesn’t happen. And the signed documents are pretty much forgotten for the rest of the movie, and I really saw very little in the film thereafter that pointed to anything like contemporary relevance.
But even a throwback western can be enjoyable, and I liked much of the first half of the film, enjoying the nods to My Darling Clementine (Ed Harris’s homage to Henry Fonda’s Wyatt Earp’s fondness for sitting with his boots propped against a porch’s roof support) and to Rio Bravo (from which much of the plot comes—wealthy bad guy held in custody while waiting for transport and / or arrival of territorial judge, while the bad guy’s henchmen outnumber and threaten the outmanned sheriff). But the film ends up feeling like a mash-up of three films, My Darling Clementine, Rio Bravo, and Dodge City, which is part of what makes the film seem much longer than its 2-hour running time.
After a tightly-constructed first hour, we essentially start a new movie (and it may not be any of the ones mentioned above), as Virgil’s lady love Allison French (Renee Zellweger) is kidnapped as a way to force the freedom of bad guy Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons), and thus we start off on a condensed version of, perhaps, The Searchers, as Virgil and Everett go off into the desert to redeem Allison.
After some chasing and some shooting, Bragg escapes, and we enter yet another plot, which, similar to Dodge City, involves a wealthy bad guy (Bragg, pardoned by the President for the murders he committed back in the first film, I mean, back in the first part of the film) who has taken over the town. All of a sudden, every building in Appaloosa is named after Bragg. There are some obscure references to his hitting it rich from a silver mine, and the city officials who fearfully hired Virgil and Everett to take care of Bragg are suddenly welcoming and sucking up to him. That this incredible transformation seems to take place within in a few days may have saved the film from being even longer than it already is, but I found the instantaneous transformation of Appaloosa into Braggtown hard to believe.
And speaking of hard to believe, much of the plot turns on the inexplicable behavior of Allison French. And the portrayal via her character of weak and untrustworthy femininity is certainly a throwback, but I’m not sure to what, as, for example, Angie Dickinson’s Feathers in Rio Bravo seems a feminist icon in comparison (as does many another strong female character in westerns of the 50s and 60s). The character motivation we have for Allison is that she responds so strongly to “alpha males” that she immediately hooks up with the leader of the pack. So weak-willed is she in the presence of masculine authority that within hours of being kidnapped, tied up, and held at gunpoint by Ring and Mackie Shelton, she is having sex with and enjoying a frolicking river bath with Ring.
There aren’t many strong western women in Appaloosa, with the possible exception of Ariadna Gil’s Katie (who doesn’t get enough screen time), who appears to be pragmatic and tough enough to survive in the town of Appaloosa.
I wouldn’t normally comment on the exigencies of a local theater’s projection system, but there seemed to be some sort of smudge on the projector’s lens, and much of the film looked like it had been shot through the plastic lens of a Kodak instamatic. I mention this, though, because for most of the film, I wasn’t sure if there was something wrong with the projection or if this effect was an intentional part of the film’s throwback aesthetic, as if they were evoking the Old cinematic West by creating a visual style that look like a faded color print from the 1960s. Early in the film, we see Virgil sitting in front of a glass window that is (realistic to the 1880s) wavy and distorting of the scene beyond, and the film was so insistent in making sure we noticed the waviness of the glass (see how authentic we are!) that I assumed that the other visual distortions were similarly intentional stylistic choices, which I think says something about the film after all.
However, I wish I’d gone to the box office and asked them to clean the lens, so that at I least I could have spent two hours enjoying a clear view of Viggo Mortensen’s stylish facial hair (and two hours watching Viggo is never wasted time, just wish he’d been in a better movie).
This review of Appaloosa was orginally posted in slightly different form at the Firefly and Western Literature blog.