© New Line Cinema/Warner Brothers.
Ed Harris made his directorial debut eight years ago in a biography of Jackson Pollock in which he played the title role. He's now followed this up with a fine western, Appaloosa. This is singularly appropriate. Back in the postwar decade, Pollock's paintings were promoted in the Cold War as an expression of American freedom and individuality, while Pollock was sold to a US public more than a little hostile to abstract art as the archetypal western hero.
Pollock was born near Cody, Wyoming, a town named in honour of Buffalo Bill, and drifted around Arizona with itinerant workers before heading east as, in the words of his biographer BH Friedman: 'A hard-riding, hard-drinking cowboy from the Wild West who came roaring, maybe even shooting, his way into New York where he took the art galleries by storm.'
Based on a novel by Robert B Parker (creator of the Boston private eye Spenser), Appaloosa not only stars its director, but he's also co-scriptwriter and producer, and sings a Willie Nelson-style song over the final credits. In addition, he's cast his father Bob as a grizzled frontier judge who presides over a murder trial in an improvised court and has one of the film's best lines. 'You got a horse, son?' he asks a witness who's just testified against a ruthless killer. 'Then you better get on it now, ride fast and don't look back.' Yet this is no vanity project. It's a handsome, subtle, sober film, well acted all around, that plays interesting variations on familiar themes, deliberately alluding to High Noon, Rio Bravo, 3.10 to Yuma, My Darling Clementine and Unforgiven.
Set in New Mexico in the early 1880s, the film is narrated by Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen), a West Point-trained ex-cavalry officer who's given up Indian fighting to become deputy to the hardened lawman Virgil Cole (Ed Harris). For a dozen years, they've been travelling the West, imposing order on new communities, and they're called to the town of Appaloosa by the venal city fathers led by a pompous merchant and saloon owner (Timothy Spall). Their task is to bring to justice rancher-businessman Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons), friend of the 21st US President Chester Arthur. Bragg intends to take over the local copper mines, until recently threatened by Apaches, and dominate the territory, and his band of hired ruffians have killed Appaloosa's marshal and two deputies. Cole accepts the job and quite literally before the ink has dried on a contract of his own devising, he and Hitch have killed three of Bragg's men.
There follows a contest of will and nerve between Cole and Bragg that leads to a daring arrest, the holding of the rancher for trial, and the dangerous journey by train to the territorial penitentiary. Into Cole's life comes a good-looking widow, Allison French (Renée Zellweger), for whom he falls, though perceiving her contradictions. His hostage to fortune, she's an innocent schemer, not one of the 'whores and squaws' he's previously associated with, but still a puzzling cross between saloon girl and homemaker.
Each incident is familiar but smartly handled and given a little twist. There's the pursuit of Bragg and the gunslingers who've kidnapped the widow and sprung him, an encounter with a party of Apache braves, and an outstandingly staged shoot-out in the plaza of an old Spanish town that, like the gunfight at the OK Corral, is brief and deadly.
Magnificently shot by Australian photographer Dean Semler (he worked on Dances With Wolves and the TV mini-series Lonesome Dove), the film has an authentic feel without the corrosive cynicism that often tarnishes revisionist westerns. And it's a clean piece of storytelling that dispenses with narrative bridges: the passing of a considerable stretch of time, for instance, is conveyed by the skeleton of a house Cole is building for Mrs French suddenly becoming a comfortable home.
But ultimately the most attractive aspect of this film resides in the leading characters and, most especially, the relationship between Mortensen and Harris, so splendid together in Cronenberg's A History of Violence. A variation on Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp, they're complementary, mutually respecting men of honour. Hitch is introspective, articulate, educated, reserved, while Cole is compulsive, explosive, an autodidact who knows little of himself. A running joke involves Cole's search for the mot juste he hasn't quite grasped from his reading of Emerson and other deep authors, and he constantly turns to Hitch for a prompt. This joke is extended to the misspelt sign over the sheriff's office saying 'CITY MARSHALL', which presumably Cole hasn't noticed and Hitch is too gentlemanly to point out.