Appaloosa

Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Ed Harris, Renée Zellweger, Jeremy Irons

Director: Ed Harris
Released: 2008

Mood: If you and your BFF are super tight but don’t do feelings or any of that mushy stuff and want to watch a movie that’s like ride-or-die buddy cops but doesn’t rely on jokes or pratfalls or have lame emo scenes.

“Feelings get you killed.” 

Virgil Cole (Ed Harris)

I don’t know why Appaloosa isn’t one of my favourite Westerns. It has all the right ingredients:

  • great story
  • brilliant acting from Ed Harris, Jeremy Irons, and Viggo Mortensen
  • James Gammon AND Luce Rains are among the supporting cast
  • gorgeous cinematography
  • excellent costuming
  • fantastic facial hair on Viggo

Yet somehow I forget about it. Like, REALLY forget. I sat down to watch it last night thinking I’d never seen it, then realized in the second scene that I had. What makes Appaloosa slip from my mind? 

the Appaloosa DVD

Appaloosa takes place in 1882, in the town of Appaloosa, New Mexico. It presents a classic Western dilemma: a town of scared citizens being bullied by a powerful, violent man. This premise worked well for tons of other movies, like The Quick and the Dead, The Magnificent Seven, and Tombstone, to name a few. 

The town needs to hire a force bigger and badder than the bully. In this case, that would be lawman-for-hire Virgil Cole (Ed Harris) and his deputy, Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen). Their job is to end Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons) and his men’s rule over Appaloosa – although they’re okay with killing them instead.

Everything would probably be over in 48 hours if Allie French (Renée Zellweger) didn’t come to town, and Cole didn’t fall instantly and implausibly in love and U-Haul her. She’s a widow with many faces, all of which toy with not only Cole and Hitch but also with Bragg. I hate all those stories about how a woman was responsible for the fall of man, but this woman is 100% the f*cking problem for these dudes

illustration of a fancy moustache

Appaloosa is interesting because it has two climaxes. You get a ton of horseback chasing and shooting action that feels like the final showdown, but you’re only halfway through the movie. The trouble is that it puts you into the action equivalent of a full belly – afterwards there’s a long patch with a lot of dialogue and minimal action, and you’re in this food coma state that makes it hard to pay attention. 

Or maybe that’s just me.

Viggo Mortensen is f*cking awesome in Appaloosa. His performance is so restrained, which I guess is classic Viggo – he’s brimming with gunfighting skill, but if you get to see it you’re about to be dead. Ed Harris is all commanding and intimidating, and Viggo is leaning nonchalantly in a corner but your eye goes to him. To quote My So Called Life, “he leans well”. 

His character is also quietly intelligent (filling in the big words that Cole stumbles upon in conversations but without making a big deal of it), and Viggo plays it well. 

Jeremy Irons is another outstanding performance as the vicious Randall Bragg. In the first scene he kills three lawmen without batting an eye. Irons is gruff and tough, but radiating a sharp intelligence that makes a bad man REALLY f*cking hard to kill. 

Ed Harris is great, he’s always great. He looks and acts similarly to his character in Westworld though, which distracted me. There’s some sweetness in Cole, but it feels enough the same that it kind of took away from both roles. 

And then there’s Renée Zellweger. I don’t want to say she’s the reason I forget about Appaloosa, but she kind of is. Her character is so critical to the plot, you have to see her appeal to buy into it. And there was NO appeal, not even at first, and no plausible chemistry. I didn’t get why Cole liked her, so I didn’t get why he was willing to thwart his own job for her – or why Hitch would put his life on the line for Cole to get a chance with her. 

I don’t dislike Renée Zellweger, she just frequently plays her characters with the same speech patterns and mannerisms. It suits chick flicks, but in this case it didn’t work. 

With that said, all of the bad guys in Appaloosa are proper filthy, like they work hard, fight hard, and never bathe. I love it. It feels wholly authentic. 

illustration of a fancy moustache

Ed Harris REALLY wanted to make this movie. Aside from being one of the two lead actors, he directed it, co-wrote the screenplay (based on a Robert B. Parker novel), and co-produced the film. And I can see the appeal – it’s as much a character study as it is a solid Western. 

Apparently that’s what drew Viggo Mortensen to it, too. He said, “I like to ride horses, and I like Westerns, but there are a lot of bad ones. What set this one apart is just how the characters are a little more guarded.”

Appaloosa is a good movie, it really is. I wish I liked it more. Viggo put a ton of time into researching the period and his character, right down to his gunfight stance. 

And Ed Harris knows how to shoot and correctly unload his Colt Model 1873 Single-Action Army Revolver (using the ejector rod), which apparently many actors get wrong in Westerns.  

I’m definitely going to check out the books about Hitch and Cole. Or at least Appaloosa. Hopefully the whole love triangle (rectangle?) idea works better on paper than it did on screen. 

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