Appaloosa (2008): Western Starring Ed Harris and Viggo Mortensen

New Line/Warner

Two Old West gunmen, well-played by Ed Harris and especially Viggo Mortensen, are hired to bring law and order to a town under siege in Harris’ new Western “Appaloosa,” an old-fashioned horse opera in both the positive and negative senses of these terms.

Based on the novel by best-selling author Robert Parker, adapted to the screen by Harris and Robert Knott, “Appaloosa” tells a classic, almost too shapely story of two lawmen in a lawless land, determined to live and die with honor.

Set in the world of renegade ranchers and gunfighters, the movie combines menacing conflicts of law and order and sudden bursts of violence with a quieter meditation on courage, manhood, and camaraderie.

Changing pace, Harris follows up his biopic “Pollock,” which was well-acted but heavy-handed and pretentious, with a more relaxed and enjoyable Western, adding a decent (if not great) panel to the all but dead genre. Though the production values are polished, overall, the film qualifies as a B-grade Western, the kind of which Randolph Scott used to make in the 1950s and 1960s.

Warner will release the New Line production September 19, after its world-premiere at the Toronto Film Festival. Commercially, prospects of “Appaloosa” at the box-office are low, due to the lack of market support for Western films. You can count on one hand the number of Westerns being made, and in less than one hand those that succeed theatrically, such as last year’s James Mangold’s remake of 3:10 to Yuma,” which benefited from the strong marquee names of Russell Crowe and Christian Bale.

Thematically and tonally, “Appaloosa” bears resemblance to Howard Hawks’ low-key meditations on courage, the use of violence, and male camaraderie, in such films as “Rio Bravo,” “El Dorado,” and “Rio Lobo,” all starring John Wayne; John Ford’s “Two Rode Together,” and Sam Peckinpah’s “Ride the High Country.” In fact, Harris’s Western could have easily been called “Two Rode Together.”

Not much is happening by way of conventional plot, and one of the recurrent images, Viggo Mortensen’s Everett Hitch sitting in the verandah of the town’s pub with his gun resting on his shoulder (but always alert), reaffirms the dominant, stagnant mood that prevails in town in between shootouts.

When the town of Appaloosa’s sheriff is shot to death by a corrupt rancher, Virgil Cole (Harris) is hired as the town’s new Marshal, with Everett Hitch (Mortensen) as his Deputy. The two men make a living ‘settling down,’ as they say, wild frontier towns, enforcing laws where weaker men cant or won’t. Cole is a man of few words and fewer friends–Hitch has been watching his back for years.

The duo expect their stay in Appaloosa to be brief, during which they’ll impose a kind of ad-hoc martial law, capture the guilty rancher and drive off his gang, and then hand their tin stars to the next guy and move on.

Cole and Hitch, however, couldn’t have counted on the sudden appearance of Allison French (Renee Zellweger), a young widow. Allison arrives in Appaloosa with little money but lots of charm and some chutzpah, too. Soon, she is drawn to Cole’s quiet strength. Within months, she and the Marshal are a couple, building a house in Appaloosa together, but Cole makes it clear that he has no intention of moving on.

The lawmen succeed in establishing a sense or order in town, but the newfound peace is shattered, when an eyewitness agrees to testify against the rancher Bragg for the murder of Appaloosa’s former sheriff. Like many other Westerns, the moral dilemma here is whether or not to inform and whether or not to report and collaborate with the official authority.

The errant rancher is arrested, tried, convicted, and sentenced to hang. When Bragg’s men bust him out of jail and take Allison hostage. From that point on, the battle gets more personal and obsessive. Cole finds himself conflicted: Is he out to rescue his woman, or fulfill his duty as Marshal Clearly, the two men’s lives and their futures in Appaloosa depend on the answer.

Cole and Hitch ride out after Bragg and his men, deep into Indian territory. When the Indians attack, the lawmen and the outlaws must form an uneasy partnership in order to survive. Combining classic Western imagery with a contemporary sensibility and energy, “Appaloosa” offers up complex characters that value personal honor, even when the cost of preserving it is unbearably high. When a man of integrity like Cole, learns that he has been set-up in the most unimaginable way, a set-up involving both his enemies and his friends, what does his sense of obligation compel him to do

With an ending as surprising and appealing and Cole himself, “Appaloosa” delivers the answer. The film boasts a wonderful finale that allows each character to maintain his integrity as a man and law-officer. Watching Viggo Mortensen positioning himself in grand style in the preparation for the climactic shootout offers visual pleasure as well as reaffirmation of a code of honor that may be too mythical but helps maintain the tradition of the Westerner as a gentleman guided by strong inner conscience and sense of self.

A film in which the subtext is just as important as the text, “Appaloosa” deals with the immaturity of grown-up men who, literally and figuratively don’t know what to do and how to behave when women are around. The dialogue is fittingly awkward, with a lot of intentional and unintentional pauses. At one Point, Cole asks Allison, “Are you a whore” and then proceeds to think about her as a whore.

Harris has admirably attempted to make an adult Western, but “Appaloosa” falls between the cracks: It’s too grown-up for the teenage viewers who frequent American movies, and too simplistic and undernourished to be deemed a deep psychological film for adults. Ultimately, what saves the film is the high-caliber acting and the low-key, good-natured humor, particularly when the triangle is center-stage, able to induce a few smiles in their deliberately awkward conversations about sexual politics in general and women in particular.

With the exception of Zellweger, the acting is uniformly good. There’s good rapport and strong chemistry between Harris and Mortensen, who previously appeared together (though not as buddies) in David Cronenberg’s superb “A History of Violence.”

This is a banner year for Viggo Mortensen, following “The Lord of the Rings” Trilogy, “History of Violence,” and last year’s “Eastern Promises,” also by Cronenberg, for which he won a well-deserved Best Actor Oscar nomination. Mortensen will be seen in no les than three pictures by the end of December; the other two being “The Road” and “Good.”

Lack of good roles for women has been a recurrent problem of the Western genre, and “Appaloosa” is no exception. While the presence of Zellweger is crucial for the proceedings, her scenes with Harris and Mortensen are the weakest in the picture. She feels like an interruption, which is built into the saga for without her the story would have interpreted as too homoerotic. Another, more alluring actress (say Diane Lane) might have pulled the trick off, but Zellweger, who looks shabby, is unconvincing as a femme fatale.