12 October 2008 | jon.h.ochiai
Compelling and Weird Western
On the immediate surface "Apaloosa" occurs as an old school Western grounded in the battle of good against evil. For the most part first time director/ writer Ed Harris's "Apaloosa" is the traditional tale of gunslingers hired to protect the town against the malevolent rancher, who terrorizes the town of Apaloosa. This slithery and wily Rancher is Randall Bragg, well played by Academy Award Winner Jeremy Irons. Irons is amazing. In the opening Bragg (Irons) kills the town Marshall and his deputies in cold blood. So there is no question surrounding Bragg's character. Harris and Viggo Mortensen play Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch, who are lawmen for hire. The town of Apaloosa signs a contract with Virgil and Everett paying them to protect the town from Bragg. As part of the deal Apaloosa surrenders legal jurisdiction and autonomy to Cole and Hitch. This is pretty straight forward until femme fatale widow Allison French (Renee Zellwegger) arrives in town. Virgil takes a quick fancy to Allison, but her motives are vague and questionable at best. Will she threaten Virgil's partnership with Everett?
First off, I ultimately liked "Apaloosa", because Viggo Mortensen is awesome as Everett. Despite the movie's quirky idiosyncrasies, Mortensen commands the heroic presence as the sensible man of honor. Mortensen is the Western hero in the tradition of Clint Eastwood. As Everett, we always know where Mortensen stands, and he is both charismatic and cool. In a great scene a rival asks Everett about Virgil's gun prowess. Everett says plainly, "I haven't seen anyone as good as Virgil." Mortensen's Virgil salvages the movie's sense of honor.
As mentioned previously, "Apaloosa" is not really all that traditional just below the surface. And this is not necessarily a good thing. This is not the anti-hero masterpiece of Clint Eastwood's "Unforgiven". In one sense, I think Harris would like it to be. For one thing although Harris's Virgil is brave and noble, he is an apparent partial nut job. He goes nonlinear on some hoods in a saloon, among other weird out bursts. Harris's Virgil is not an educated man, and clumsily forces his diction and stumbles through Emerson. Instead of coming off as charmingly eccentric, his Virgil occurs as a little weird. Renee Zellwegger is an amazing actress, but here she struggles to carry off pretty. Her character Allison also has the propensity to have sex with virtually any man with a pulse. Straight and narrow Virgil in love with psycho whore Allison is not the most conventional love story, nor is it the story's most endearing plot line. Again, this may be more artifact of the screenplay by Harris and Robert Knot based on Robert B. Parker's best selling novel.
In spite of its quirkiness and kind of nutty characters, Harris manages to reign in the movie as it concludes-- opting for the more heroic. There is a great scene before one the climatic showdowns where Allison asks Virgil and Everett, "Aren't either of you at all afraid?" Virgil says, "
I guess I don't think about that so much." Also in "Apaloosa" the action is not leveraged for the utmost drama. Director Harris's action sequences lack crispnessthe gun fight blocking is mostly single shot, without any interesting angles. Aside from the last gun fight, most of the action is diluted of high drama. The action is well done, just not spectacular.
"Apaloosa" is an amalgamation of the traditional Western with the idiosyncratic melodrama of the new. The overall effect is compelling, and also makes you scratch your head. Viggo Mortensen's strong and charismatic performance as Everett Hitch eventually wins out, and makes "Apaloosa" worth watching.