Appaloosa Review

March 1, 2009 Off By Eric Jensen

OK, I have seen enough Westerns that I am more or less done with the genre. But I am always open to something new. I am a big Robert B. Parker fan, I love Ed Harris, Jeremy Irons, Renee Zellweger and Jeff Beal’s music so I had to see Appaloosa, although I regretfully missed it on the big screen.
Ed Harris and Viggo Mortensen play two hired guns, brought into Appaloosa to do battle with the violent, power-hungry rancher (Jeremy Irons) who has shot the former sheriff and deputy. The classic Western setup…good guys take on evil sociopath and his large posse and clean up town. Of course, there is a mysterious and beautiful woman (Renee Zellweger) to keep things interesting.

What sets this film apart from the standard fare are the many unexpected subtle twists and turns. The plot never quite goes where you expect. The film focuses on the relationship between Harris and Mortensen and the gradual unveiling of Renee Zellweger’s enigmatic character. Mr. Harris is a brilliant storyteller and skillfully balances the classic Western backdrop (the film looks absolutely gorgeous) with fresh characters and plot twists. For example, Harris’ character reads Emerson and uses $50 words unexpected from a gun slinger. The gag is, he tends to forget words, and continually looks to his strong, silent sidekick, who even more surprisingly, completes his sentences. Shades of Spencer and Hawk…

There is some classic Robert B. Parker-style dialog as well. In one of my favorite scenes, Mortensen’s character is attempting to start a difficult conversation with Harris about Renee Zellweger’s indiscretions. Harris interrupts him, explaining that while he is the perfect sidekick, he will never be the fastest gun in The West because he has feelings, and “Feelings get you killed.” Mortensen asks him about his feelings for Zellweger and Harris replies, “I cared about Allie in town and I’ll care about her when I get her back, but right now there’s something runnin’ and we’re trying to catch it.” Great stuff…

Jeff Beal’s score provides the perfect backdrop for Ed Harris’ masterful character development; expansive, understated and slightly whimsical. He covers the requisite Western territory (nods to Morricone) with a light touch and strong melodic themes. He introduces new flavors, including his own trumpet, and atmospheric textures, without straying far from the genre. There is great fiddling by Sid Page throughout the score. The end credits feature a well-picked Tom Petty tune and a Johnny Cash-ish original penned by Harris & Beal. Ed Harris’ vocal performance is a real kick.

At first glance, Appaloosa appears to be a semi-standard Western. In the end, it feels like a personal, independent film; a slightly quirky, character study in Western clothing….not any easy feat to pull off. Highly recommended!