These days, making a standard western is just not good enough. Ever since Clint Eastwood took aim at the traditional oater tropes with his much-touted anti-western Unforgiven in 1992, any movie hoping for success in this genre has transcended its origins to make an impact on serious cinephiles. Sure, the late-’60s and ’70s saw big changes for the Western, with films like The Wild Bunch and Sergio Leone films, but these movies still used traditional western tropes, adding ultra-violence, stylistic camerawork, and deeper characters. It wasn't until Unforgiven that the myth behind characters like the Man With No Name really met a deconstructionist bent. Last year saw the arrival of two films that put their own unique spin on this category, There Will Be Blood and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Along with HBO's Deadwood, these films eschewed the traditional western stereotypes of outlaws and gunmen and concentrated on the lives of their flawed characters. It was Shakespearean tragedy with horses and pistols.
Last year also gave us the Russell Crowe vehicle 3:10 To Yuma, a remake of a 1957 film with the same title. Rather than bring us the fiery Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood or the conflicted Casey Affleck in Jesse James, Yuma made no attempt to be anything more than a simple morality play that is as old as the genre itself: an honest man tries to bring an outlaw to justice. Though entertaining, this film will probably join the ranks of other recent misbegotten Westerns such as Open Range and The Claim. Being merely good within the confines of the genre will, pardon the metaphor, push you to the back of the herd.
Appaloosa marks Ed Harris’ second directorial effort after his award-winning turn as painter Jackson Pollock, and it falls squarely into the “merely good” category. Harris stars as Virgil Cole, who, along with partner Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen), comes to the New Mexico town of Appaloosa to clean up the unwanted criminal element. Rancher Randall Bragg (a glowering Jeremy Irons) and his boys are giving the local lawmakers a hell of time. When the mysterious Alison French (Renee Zellweger, who looks just as haggard as Harris) arrives in town and is instantly attracted to Virgil, it is inevitable that the men’s friendship will suffer.
One of the film’s biggest weaknesses is its tepid pacing. Virgil and Everett spend a good deal of the film sitting around, and when the action does arrive, it is neither compelling nor gratifying. While last year’s No Country For Old Men said so much with so little, Harris can't make minimalism work for him. The loneliness that fills Virgil and Everett isn't palpable. These are not fully fleshed-out characters, so we don't get familiar enough with their back stories to care.
Though the storytelling may be stagnant, Zellweger’s Alison is the film’s Achilles' heel. The character is unbelievable from the moment she arrives at Appaloosa, her dubious background in tow. She hooks up with Virgil but makes no qualms lusting after Everett. When her character’s true purpose is ultimately revealed, the film makes the dodgy point that women cannot be trusted. Really, Ed? One character even likens Alison to a horse, automatically attracted to the top stud in the herd. Deadwood's female characters added something new to depictions of their gender in the western genre: intelligence and complication. Appaloosa exhibits no such progress.