Western Myths Mix Sweetly For Viggo
26 September 2008
© New Line Cinema/Warner Brothers.
Westerns don't come along very often any more but when someone is brave enough to sit tall in the saddle, it's invariably worth the wait.
Last year, Brad Pitt's foray into the wild west, The Assassination of Jesse James, was a contender for film of the year and Russell Crowe's remake of 3:10 to Yuma wasn't far behind.
Now it's Ed Harris' turn to pull on spurs, dig out his six shooter and go in search of film drama.
Harris is co-writer, director and star of Appaloosa, a western set in the New Mexico town of the title.
He plays Virgil Cole, a taciturn law enforcer-for-hire who is hired by the local politicians (led by Timothy Spall) to clean up this frontier settlement.
He brings along his even more short-on-words partner Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen) and introduces new by-laws that don't go down well with cut-throat rancher Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons).
To complicate matters further, a young widow (Renee Zellweger) arrives in town and makes a play for Cole. His subsequent yearning to settle down and build a house with his new love gives Cole a vulnerability that his enemies have been seeking.
Appaloosa offers up the standard western mythology with all the characters and situations (railroad hold-ups; Indian raiding parties) familiar to anyone who has seen a John Wayne movie. But it sidesteps the cliches thoughtfully, thanks to its solid script and the high quality of the bulk of its acting.
Indeed, for the first hour at least, it's very reminiscent of another fairly recent Western triumph, Open Range, with Kevin Costner and Robert Duvall as tough cowboys with little small talk and Annette Bening as the woman who makes at least one of them think of settling down.
Zellweger, however, is no Bening and her simpering performance is Appaloosa's major weakness. Why they didn't just shoot her in the first reel and have done with it is anyone's guess.
Irons also struggles to match Mortensen and Harris, giving a villainous performance that is a diluted version of Daniel Day Lewis in There Will Be Blood.
Which means that its the two male leads, maybe naturally for a Western, who are the film's chief merit and interest.
Harris has always been a class act and the post Lord of the Rings Mortensen always seems to find the perfect quiet man of violence roles that bring out the best in him. Watching these two at work is a joy.
Harris also proves that he's a fine director. The pacing of the film in particular is spot on and you never find yourself wishing the film would speed up or slow down.
Westerns as a whole may never get their full appeal back but, as long as there are films as interesting as Appaloosa, this most American of genres will never die.
Last edited: 14 January 2009 08:58:39