The first sound is of pounding hooves and the first sight is of three horsemen hurrying over the crest of a dun colored hill, framed by the wooden gate to a ranch in desolate country. The city marshal and his deputies have come to arrest one of the hired hands for rape and murder, but the landowner, a man called Bragg (Jeremy Irons), stands firm. When the marshal tries to make the arrest Bragg shoots down the horsemen with nary a blink and barely a shrug.
As the villain of Appaloosa, the splendid new western directed by Ed Harris, Bragg is much feared throughout the New Mexico Territory. He’s a well-spoken ruffian, convinced he can get away with murder. After all, he is friendly with Chester Arthur, the President of the United States. Appaloosa is centered on the hard quest by the dead marshal’s replacement to bring Bragg to justice.
The new marshal in town, Virgil Cole (Harris) and his sidekick, Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen), are “gun hands” for hire. In a brief voiceover, Hitch tells us he was a West Point man, served in the war between the states and the wars against the Indians, but set-off on a more lonesome path under Cole. As for Cole, he reveals little of his past save that he’s been hiring himself out as a frontier lawman for many years and that he’s a fast draw with a Winchester or a Colt. Hitch is pretty fast, too; he often covers his boss with an eight-gauge shotgun and a wary set of eyes looking from under his broad brimmed hat and fierce set of whiskers.
The little town of Appaloosa is ripe for picking when Cole and Hitch ride in. The cringing aldermen live in terror of Bragg’s men—they will “pay any price to get our town back”—and with only a twitch of reluctance accede to Cole’s demands. Cole silently takes their measure and no doubt finds it wanting. Hitch steps up with the proposal. “We need a lot of laws to make everything legal,” he tells the town council on an ominous note before producing Cole’s standard contract as a peace officer. In effect, the document places little Appaloosa in Cole’s calloused hands.
Hitch and Cole say little but don’t have to. They are laconic men who weight their words like gold dust on an assayer’s scale. Appaloosa’s one running joke concerns Cole’s inability to pronounce some of the bigger words he uses. He mines them from his favorite philosopher, Emerson, whom he reads in between killing or beating up miscreants. Cole is tightly wound and small things play jarring melodies on his nerves.
Most of the implications of the story and characters, based on a novel by Robert B. Parker, are never taken to trail’s end. And that’s just as well. Cole and Hitch are archetypes—grim reapers of justice—casting long shadows across the desolation of the frontier under a hot blue sky. They resemble an old married couple and there is even a ghost of erotic tension straining to be felt. When a young woman, Allie French (Renee Zellweger), steps down from the train from an uncertain past into an uncertain future, Cole commences to measure her worth as Hitch looks on skeptically.
On a mostly subliminal level, Appaloosa becomes an awkward love triangle and a terse examination of what the old pre-1970s westerns never told us about the precarious status of unmarried women at the edge of civilization. Allie is a belle of the west but her dignity rests uneasily on the quicksand of male desire and scorn. Captive to the necessity of finding a man who will patronize her, Allie’s wavering loyalties cast her in a dubious light when viewed by Cole and Hitch, men whose loyalty to one another has become the solid ground they travel on.