OK, so I’m a sucker for westerns.
I’m part of the generation that grew up with hot-and-cold-running westerns every night on every network in the days when there were only three networks to choose from.
I still know the lyrics to the theme songs of shows like “Sugarfoot” and can whistle the theme to “The Rifleman,” “Maverick” and many more. I can still name Jock Mahoney’s sidekick on “Yancy Derringer” (Pahoo, played by X Brands, one of the great stage names). I lived and died with movies like “The Magnificent Seven” and “Rio Bravo,” which I saw at Saturday matinees at the Richfield Theater in suburban Minneapolis.
Here’s my point: Even if I weren’t a fan of cowboy movies, I would have enjoyed “Appaloosa.”
Ed Harris has taken a leap from the modern (“Pollock”) to the classical, jumping from an impressionistic biopic into a genre that’s been up and down more times than a rodeo hand on an especially spirited bull. He’s made a western that has the frisson of revisionism but which also is more in a classical mode than a modern one.
Adapted by Harris (who also directed and stars) and Robert Knott from a novel by Robert B. Parker (yes, the “Spenser” guy), “Appaloosa” laces together several themes, toying with staples of the genre while turning them on their heads. It keeps you guessing, even as it satisfies expectations of the western form.
Harris and Viggo Mortenson play Virgil Cole and Everett Hatch, former soldiers who, by the 1880s, have made a living as itinerant peace officers. They travel from town to town, hired to impose order in lawless times, before they move along to the next needy outpost.
They arrive at the settlement of Appaloosa in the New Mexico territory after a rancher, Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons), kills the local sheriff and his deputies. Bragg and his lowlife crew are running roughshod over the town; the quaking city elders (played by Timothy Spall, James Gammon and Tom Bower) give Cole and Hatch free rein to tame Bragg.
In fact, Cole provides his own set of laws, which cedes law-making authority for the town to him. Then he sets about methodically harassing Bragg’s men – and Bragg himself – shooting a couple in a quick showdown, pistol-whipping another, trying to provoke Bragg into doing something that will allow them eliminate him.
But when one of Bragg’s men steps forward and offers to testify that he saw Bragg murder the sheriff, Cole and Hatch use that as the excuse to snatch up Bragg (though he lives outside their jurisdiction) and bring him to trial. Between the grab and his conviction, the film offers echoes of everything from “Rio Bravo” to “High Noon” to “3:10 to Yuma.”
The wild card here is Mrs. Allison French (Renee Zellweger), a lively widow who pulls into town and immediately becomes involved with Cole. But she quickly reveals an opportunistic streak when she makes a play for Hatch (while giving him a tour of the under-construction house where she and Cole plan on living together after marriage). If she takes a situational approach to fidelity, Hatch has no such problem: His allegiance is to Virgil Cole.
What’s intriguing about “Appaloosa” is that, though it builds to a climactic gunfight, the gunplay is more pro forma than the plotting – and comes with a third of the movie still to come. Yes, the sudden violence and death that were part of life in the Old West are a crucial element of this film – but it has a larger political point to make.
Which is why the film is called “Appaloosa”: It’s a movie about the town and the way it responds to a crisis. The peace officers are chess pieces, used ruthlessly until they become expendable.
Yet, over and over again, Harris undercuts expectations, giving us a peek at possible plot directions and themes (the corrupting nature of power, the fickleness of the public, the way a woman can come between two friends) and then casually shifting gears, reversing field. It gives “Appaloosa” an enjoyable slippery quality, making it a movie you can never get a fix on until the entire picture has been revealed in its final minutes.
Harris, who can be scarily intense (to the point of overplaying), here affects an agreeably laconic demeanor as a guy who knows who he is and what he expects out of life. He’s an autodidact and a stickler about improving his vocabulary, a source of humor between him and Mortenson through the film. Mortenson is similarly reserved, a man’s man who lives by a code but doesn’t make a big show about it. With his center-parted hair and a bushy, bristly mustache and goatee, he’s impassively amused – or bemused – by everyone around him, including his close friend.
The role of Mrs. French seems out of character for Zellweger; she’s a deceitful, faithless, dissembling woman. But Zellweger gives her a humanity that keeps you guessing about her motives and intentions. Irons is obviously having a blast playing this villain – a supposedly transplanted New Yorker with alleged connections to Pres. Chester Alan Arthur. He bites off big mouthfuls of Yankee vowels with gusto. And a nod to Lance Henriksen, one of our most intriguing character actors, who rarely seems to get the kinds of roles he deserves.
“Appaloosa” is part of a group of films this fall (including the upcoming “Happy-Go-Lucky” and “The Lucky Ones”) that seem to play into formulas, then foil expectations by sidestepping them – and creating something far more interesting. This one is as soulful and satisfying as westerns get.