FEELINGS GET YOU KILLED
In the mid to late 2000s, there was something of a revival of western films, like Seraphim Falls, 3:10 to Yuma, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. It seemed like the classic American movie genre had returned for the beginning of the new Century. One of the quieter releases to gets its release around the time was the second directorial effort from actor Ed Harris, following his debut Pollock in 2000. Reuniting with his A History of Violence co-star, Viggo Mortensen, Harris co-wrote, directed and starred in an adaptation of Robert B. Parker’s novel Appaloosa.
Virgil Cole (Ed Harris) and Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen) make their living as sheriffs-for-hire, taking on another job in the town of Appaloosa, as marshal and deputy. Their job is to face down the gang of the powerful rancher Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons), who killed the last marshal and his two deputies. Their job is complicated slightly when Allison French (Renée Zellweger) arrives in town and starts on a quick romance with Virgil.
There are a few different types of plot available to the maker of westerns. Some films are about the struggle of settlers trying to push through the harsh landscape to find land of their own. Some films are stories vengeance, with one determined gunslinger heading out take their revenge on those that wronged them in some way. Appaloosa is an example of what is generally called the ‘Evil Rancher’ story. The town itself is in such a remote area that the only way it survives is through the business brought by the wealthy rancher, whose cattle trade becomes the primary lifeblood of the town’s economy. If not for them, the town would be abandoned and the residents would have to start again from scratch somewhere else. However, precisely because of this enviable position of power, the rancher figure believes that he owns the town and can do whatever he wants in it, a feeling that is shared by those who work for him. Before you know it, the town is plunged into a state of fear, with the ranch-hands getting drunk, assaulting people, shooting up the saloon and treating the town and its citizens like a plaything. Law ceases to exist, either because the rancher killed him or put him on payroll. Under such circumstances, the townspeople must look for outside help, bring in someone that can stand up to the rancher and clean up the town. This is precisely where Appaloosa begins, with Jeremy Irons acting as the Evil Rancher and Ed Harris and Viggo Mortensen the men hired to restore order to the town. For the most part, it’s pretty standard stuff.
In such a case, when the familiarities with plot may become a burden, it’s down to the characters that populate the script that make all the difference… and Appaloosa has some fine characters going. Virgil Cole is the man hired as marshal, the primary force of law. Though he has a liking for things of a more refined nature, he’s not exactly a smart man, often trying to use fancy words, but stumbling on their pronunciation or meaning. Clearly, he has an appreciation for things of a more sophisticated measure, even tries to understand them, but knows that they will always be just beyond his reach. His strength lies in his ability to set aside any form of erudite pursuit in order to do the dirty work of killing people. Emotionality is not really something he’s good at. In fact, there’s evidence that he is rather poor at keeping them in check, such as his whirlwind romance with Allison, which borders on the adolescent, or when he beats down a drunk in the saloon for speaking in too vulgar a manner. Nevertheless, he believes in the law, which is why he’s so good at bringing it to the lawless.
Everett Hitch is Virgil’s long-time friend, and his partner in crime-stopping. Hitch is much smarter than Virgil, more in control of his emotions, and a better hand with a gun. It’s Hitch who helps Virgil with his poor vocabulary, and backs him up when trouble rides into town. What stops Hitch from being the frontman of this duo is that he is less resolute in his belief in law. He knows that not everything is black and white, that there are shades of grey in the mix, that the law is only a solid as the man that upholds it, and it’s all precisely because he’s much smarter than Virgil. This is why he needs Virgil to lead him, because, even though he has his morals, without that extra guiding hand, he’s no better than your average lawless gun-for-hire.
Randall Bragg is a nasty piece of work. He’s just as smart as Hitch, and just as ruthless as Virgil, and has friends in some incredibly high places. It’s these very qualities that have seen him become the successful rancher. With his financial hold on the town, and his influence his prominent circles, he knows he need exert only a little force to get what he wants. Allison French is perhaps the most interesting character, although to explain why would be to give away too much about her and the relationships of all those above. All I will say is this – she is a survivor.
The interaction between these characters, and others, is all a matter of delicate subtlety, and the actors all play it out with an understatement that matches the tone of the script. Harris and Mortensen particularly play well off each other, showing the kind of easy relationship that Virgil and Hitch would have spent years developing. Theirs is not a friendship built on long conversations about life, but of a simple, quiet understanding of each other’s habits and ways.
There is also an interesting consideration within the film as a political text. Within the western genre in general, there is often an association made between the law, and those represent it, and the United States as a country. This is, after all, the quintessential American genre, and such associations helped garner John Wayne the nickname of ‘The Ultimate American’. It’s a political version of the standard civilisation versus wilderness measure, civilisation being the law and, thus, America. Now, with such a notion in mind, look at the representation of law in this film. Virgil is not particularly smart and he’s hot-tempered, but he’s a decisive man of action and resolute moral standing, not to mention with a great faith in his partner. Hitch is equally trusting of his partner, but he’s also smarter than him and less likely to act in the best interests of the law with his influence. Can we not perhaps consider this some sort of meditation on the potentially partisan nature of the American government? With one as Republican, the other as Democrat? It would seem to be a rather hopeful vision of sorts, since the two can co-exist and act as a force for justice and good. If it’s intentional, it’s intriguing and wonderfully noted; if it’s accidental, it’s still interesting.
However, there is a problem within the film… I did not particularly care for Appaloosa, mainly because it’s kind of a waste. It’s got a great cast, and the characters are very interesting, but they are just not handled well by Harris the Director. There is a delicate subtlety in the writing that he is simply unable to convey on the screen, which makes it feel occasionally choppy or weak. In Harris’ vision, there are no subplots, only primary plots that greatly alter the way the film feels. It begins as two men bringing law to a lawless town, but then that just stops and becomes a romance between a man and woman, with the other guy looking on. Then that stops and the law bit comes back. The law bit plays out until it becomes a different story altogether in the wilderness… there is a distinct lack of subtlety in the direction. Harris is unable to effectively weave these stories together, so they crash into each other, passing the buck from one to the other with no grace or dexterity. Also, the point of narration occasionally shifts, which is kind of a rookie mistake. The whole film is being recounted by Hitch, as evidenced by the voice-over at the beginning and end. This works well at times, with the manner we discover the relationship between Virgil and Allison being done in a suitably low-key fashion. However, there are instances that we move away from him to Virgil. It’s not exactly the worst problem ever, but it certainly highlights the problems within the methods of storytelling being used.
Also, everything just feels so flat. There’s little sense of the atmosphere of the period setting or the surroundings. The town of Appaloosa is a small and sparse place, but it feels so hollow. It’s less a town, more of a purpose built set. And the camera always sits at such a distance from things. It could be that Harris wants to incorporate this sense of open space as a regular visual motif, or highlight the metaphorical distance between characters, but it just makes things feel too remote. Given the slightness of the work on show, in the acting and the script, we could have used a discrete closeness to the camerawork. And the editing is a might clumsy on occasion, such as when the film tries to convey the days and nights that Bragg sits in jail after he’s arrested. It’s all in the visuals, but it’s too blocky, with little care taken on transition or thought given to how one scene connects to the next.
In the end, Appaloosa could have been great, because it had so much going for it. The script was fine and subtle, the cast assembled was excellent, they all did great work, and there’s the potential for allegorical discourse within. However, the lacklustre effort from Harris behind the camera fails to evoke the proper sense of drama or tension, which makes becoming emotionally involved an effort placed entirely on the viewer. I certainly don’t mind doing my part, but you’ve got to meet me halfway.