© New Line Cinema/Warner Brothers.
Viggo Mortensen, square-jawed, dimpled, and fit, is a reserved man, but he's very present in the here and now (women tend to find him irresistible). Ed Harris can be spiritually intense and as remote as an Antarctic explorer. As actors, they have different kinds of appeal, but they're touching and funny together in Appaloosa, as two men who share a gift for silence. Virgil Cole (Harris) and his "deputy," Everett Hitch (Mortensen), are guns for hire in the Old West--longtime partners who communicate mainly by glances, nods, a few gnomic words, and a deepening stillness that can suddenly explode into violence. In 1882, they ride into Appaloosa, a New Mexico frontier town, and offer their services to the inhabitants, who are terrorized by a rapacious landowner and gang leader (Jeremy Irons). They may be for hire, but they fight on the weaker side, because it pleases them to do so. Noblesse oblige. Harris, who directed, wrote the screenplay with Robert Knott, from Robert B. Parker's 2005 novel, and they have structured the picture as a traditional Western. (There are echoes of John Ford, Howard Hawks, Fred Zinnemann, and many others.) The men are divided into protectors and predators, and the movie features a series of confrontations in which the moral issues are clearly settled. Appaloosa is not as ambitious as last year's 3:10 to Yuma, which provided an expansive social portrait of the Arizona territory after the Civil War, but it has a distinctive humor, and a fresh character in Allie French (Renée Zellweger). At first, Allie seems to be the usual refined lady from the East: she wears silk dresses, pours coffee, smiles, and plays the piano (a little). But she shifts her loyalties among a group of men, some of them unsavory. A "bad" woman in town, the prostitute Katie (Ariadna Gil), understands her well enough. "Mostly, the men worry about love," Katie says, meaning that women in the West have to worry about staying alive. Allie, looking for a protector, claims Virgil, breaking up the men's chaste, straightback-mountain love story. But the relation between man and woman, the movie suggests, will never be as pure as the male bond.
The Western has been stirring to life in recent years, not only because it offers an escape from the modern world but also because it offers an escape from modern movie technology. From the opening scenes, we know that Appaloosa won't be a fantasia in which the performers get tossed around by digital salad forks. Harris and his cinematographer, Dean Semler, shot the film near Santa Fe, and they calmly lay out a vast terrain of gray-brown buttes and valleys, with endless blue sky above. Harris respects the genre's pictorial grandeur, its regard for honor, its solemn conventions; this movie is grounded. Fear has sucked the life out of the sun-bleached town, with its adobe and wood buildings, its drab bar, its underemployed prostitute. (Hitch changes that last situation.) There's no law, no newspaper, and, when a trial has to be mounted, a judge brought in from out of town turns the affair into farce. The Old West, melancholy and lonely, comes off as a bleak and scary place.
There may be no law, but Virgil Cole certainly embodies authority. Appaloosa is, in part, a story about hero worship. Hitch, who narrates, tells us that he's been to West Point and fought in the Civil War and against the Indians, but he got out of soldiering, because it didn't allow for much "expansion of the soul." It's not clear how working for a gunslinger expands the soul, but Hitch is convincingly obsessed with his boss. Mortensen, his eyes partly hidden under a round-brimmed hat, has a dandy's wide mustache and spadelike beard, and he cocks his head at odd angles and stares at Ed Harris's character as if he were a god in boots. Virgil is fearless, violent, indomitable; he's also a bit crazy, and Hitch takes care of him, reining him in now and then. Harris has an unreachable-American-hero quality; he's still the blue-eyed icon of resolve that he first revealed in his performance as John Glenn, in The Right Stuff (1983). The planes of his face seem lengthened under his black hat. He's clean-shaven, a sign of fanaticism in a country of scraggly beards.
Of all the cinematic genres, the Western has stayed closest to its silent-movie roots. Gary Cooper never said much in his cowboy roles, though as he got older his aura of tragic stoicism became better than speech. Clint Eastwood, in his spaghetti-Western days, spoke so slowly that he could just as easily have etched his sentiments in stone. Appaloosa turns the inarticulateness of the Western hero into an elaborate joke. Virgil, a self-made man, carries a small volume of Emerson around with him and puzzles out "Self-Reliance," but, at work, in the middle of some tense moment, he depends on Hitch to help out when the words don't come to him. "Commiserate," Hitch says, filling in the blank when Virgil offers mock sympathy to a mean cowboy. Even Jeremy Irons's gangster pitches in. "Sequestered?" he asks with annoyance, naming his own situation when Virgil holds him in jail for trial. Harris's view is that the small-town Old West is struggling to realize itself: it's a civilization that hasn't been articulated yet; it has values but no words, no goods. In a strange and wonderful scene, local Indians, after a raiding party on Allie and some friends, exchange her captured corset for a horse, on the assumption that such an oddity must be a thing of great value.
Virgil is pleased by Allie's refinement, though Hitch, of course, is discomforted by the way she pulls Virgil away from him. When it turns out that she takes her corset off more than she should, the two men are baffled; to them, women are either wives or whores, and Allie is a little of both. Harris conveys the confusion of the two with considerable delicacy. As a woman of mixed morals, Zellweger has a touchingly desperate quality, as if a smile would make all her betrayals go away, but her part is thinly written--there isn't enough script for her to create a full character. In all, Appaloosa is good as far as it goes--everything in it feels true--but I wish that Harris had pushed his ideas further. At the end, the movie reverts to traditional Western themes: loyalty, obligation, the defining duel. During that last gunfight, you can feel the air going out of your response, though the formal closure of the movie--the ritual push on to a new frontier, new challenges--offers its own kind of happiness.