Appaloosa: An Ed Harris Western
Pounding hooves are the first sound. Soon enough, three horsemen hurry 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 (2008), the splendidly filmed if indifferently paced western directed and written by Ed Harris, Bragg is much feared throughout the New Mexico Territory. Hes a well-spoken ruffian, convinced he can get away with murder. After all, he has a friend in the highest places, Chester Arthur, the president of the United States. Appaloosa follows the hard quest by the dead marshals replacement to bring Bragg to justice. Its out now on DVD.
The new marshal in town, Virgil Cole (Harris), dressed in undertakers black, and his slightly more colorful 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 hes been hiring himself out as a frontier lawman for many years and that hes 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 Braggs menthey will pay any price to get our town backand with only a twitch of reluctance accede to Coles 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 Coles standard contract as a peace officer. In effect, the document places little Appaloosa in Coles calloused hands.
Hitch and Cole say little but dont have to. They are laconic men who weigh their words like gold dust on an assayers scale. Appaloosas one running joke concerns Coles 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. His preternatural calm masks a maniacal streak, while the malice of his foe, Bragg, is ill-disguised under a mask of charm.
Many implications of the story and characters, based on a novel by Robert B. Parker, are never taken to trails end. And thats just as well. Cole and Hitch are archetypesgrim reapers of justicecasting 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 a less 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, Allies 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.