APPALOOSA Movie Review – Toronto Film Festival

     September 9, 2008

Written by Monika Bartyzel

The landscape of the Old West is no stranger to the world of film. We’ve seen the outlaws challenge the sheriffs, the horses gallop, and the guns blaze. The dust never completely settles on cinema’s Old West, but even in a dry sea of gun-slinging choices, Ed Harris’ Appaloosa offers a fresh, funny, and literary take on the well-traveled frontier.

Ed Harris and Viggo Mortensen star as Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch, two peacekeepers and close friends making their way across the dusty, barren landscape. Where other men take their shooting talents into more law-bending arenas, Cole and Hitch travel from town to town as sort of Old West cops-for-hire, bringing peace to the new cities struggling for order.

This quest brings them to Appaloosa – a blossoming town suffering under the outlaw-led havoc of Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons). Cole and Hitch are hired by the local bigwigs to prove that Bragg killed the last city marshal, and to bring peace to the town. But then Allison French (Renee Zellweger) arrives. She quickly captures the eye of Cole, and in a blink, Cole’s attention is split.

From there, Appaloosa dips into a world of ambiguity – in Cole and Allison’s relationship, the quest to bring down Bragg, and the fine line between gun-toting good guys and gun-toting bad guys. The film’s journey through this ambiguity is classic and familiar, but also fresh and well-plotted – all thanks to the skilled hands of Ed Harris. The actor, who easily jumped into the world of filmmaking with Pollock, is more than just Appaloosa’s star – he co-adapted Robert B. Parker’s novel with Robert Knott, and also produced and directed the film.

Under his eye, Appaloosa moves through the dust with grace, while sticking to the roots of Old West fare. The steely gaze behind the barrel of a shotgun is coupled with a flawless rapport between Cole and Hitch. These are two men who not only work well together as peacekeepers, but also as friends – almost two sides of the same coin. It is evident in their mannerisms, the way they diffuse dangerous situations, and even in everyday dialog. When the well-read Cole slips larger, more formal words into a conversation but can’t remember the full word, it’s Hitch who knows exactly what Cole is saying and fills in the blanks.

These men truly know each other, and that means more than simply understanding each other’s thoughts and motivations. This pair of peacekeepers never fall victim to lazy and easy writing. These days, it’s all too easy for a “solid” cinematic friendship to be shaken and challenged by rumor or circumstance as if there is a slim crack waiting to be exploited. With Cole and Hitch however, they’re men who know each other and can’t be played against each other. They face challenges, but do so in a way that respects their history.

But while the story is compelling, and the scenes lush, none of that compares to the performance given by Mortensen. He is, simply, Hitch. There is not one moment that seems like acting, or where he seems like anything other than his character. Mortensen’s performance is flawless – so real that the film seems more like a look into the past, rather than a fictional slice of entertainment. You can see his power, his strength, and his intelligence as easy as you can see the all-prevalent dusty wind.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Renee Zellweger. While it is easy to be mesmerized by the rest of the stellar cast and the smooth filmmaking, her performance cannot live up to her co-stars talents. She never seems completely comfortable in the film, and is just Zellweger in period attire, rather than Allison French – the mysterious woman who captures Cole’s heart.

But even in the wake of her mediocre performance, Appaloosa is a worthy cinematic escape. Ed Harris truly understands the material and offers a rewarding and engaging experience of a time long passed, but still full of life.

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