In the big strokes, in the trailers and at first glance; "Appaloosa" looks like a well-done entry in the subgenre of Westerns focusing on the strong, mostly-silent bond of friendship between a pair of lawmen. And that it is, but with a unique twist at the center that turns it from a straight-up Old West drama into something that's one part romance, one part buddy movie and very nearly one part cynical pitch-dark relationship comedy - John Ford meets Neil LaBute and Kevin Smith.
Ed Harris (who also directed) and Viggo Mortensen are a pair of mercenary gunslingers running a martial-law-for-hire business, contracted by the dusty mining town of Appaloosa to deal with murderous carpetbagger/land-grabber Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons) and his gang of thugs. Harris' Virgil Cole is a two-gun sly-talker while Mortensen's Everett Hitch is the quiet man with the big 8-gauge shotgun. In the kind of quiet, well-observed character beat that typifies the film, Cole constantly pours over the works of Emerson... but relies on Hitch to explain what the big words mean. The bottom line of the relationship - at work or otherwise is just as simple: Cole does the talking and takes point, Hitch always has his back; even if that means holding him back when his volatile temper gets the best of him (there's a definate "Searchers"-style post Civil War PTSD undercurrent to both men.)
The re-establishment of law in town and the confrontations with Bragg's goons all go according to plan - not just Cole's plan but the "plan" of the apocryphal laws of the Western genre (the two are nearly one and the same) right down to the one part that doesn't: The arrival of Renee Zellweger's Allison French - the innevitable beautiful, classy, too-fancy-by-far East Coast widow who - innevitably - stirs Cole's stony old heart and gets him to start fancyin' it's time to give up the killin' life and settle down. But then, the film takes a major left turn...
She's a total slut.
No, really. That's the big "oh by the way" curveball of the story: Cole's idealized perfect lady - who astounds him with such alien ways as bathing before bed, playing piano and introducing him to window treatments - is something akin to the Old West equivalent of a nymphomaniac (or, as Hitch puts it, "I think Allie NEEDS to be with a man.") Not in mean way, not in a "liberated womanhood threatening the frontier tradition" way, not even in a mentally-unstable way... the gal just can't seem to stand sleeping alone. She throws herself at Hitch first change she gets, doesn't seem to need much coaxing to surrender to the bad guys and even seems capable of hooking up with Bragg - whoever the top man is at any given moment. THIS, of course, is a predicament that throws Cole into utter beffudlement.
The presence of this dynamic in an otherwise intentionally formula Western turns the whole world on it's head, and the heart of the film is watching what's essentially a "dude, my girlfriend is NUTS" movie play out between two old-school cowboys in the middle of an on-and-off shooting war with the bad guys. Harris' unparalelled expressive acting betrays enough pain to keep it from being outright "hillarious," but it's definately a comic sight to see these two weathered gun-hands sussing out the situation as though Allie were a mysterious, strangely-afflicted breed of horse - sounding at times like a grim, well-spoken Old Timey Dante and Randall from "Clerks:" Cole loves her, wants her, even admires her but, as he puts it "seems she'll fuck anything that ain't a goat." "She loves me when I'm around, then she loves you" he continues. Hitch agrees in the "simplest sense," but offers that "I don't think that's love in strictest sense." In many ways, this is every bit the "cowboys in uncharted territory" story that "Brokeback Mountain" was.
This is also where the film gets it's ultimate dramatic final thrust: Hitch always has Cole's back, it's his function in life to protect him from threats he might not see coming. So what, if anything, can he do to stop Allie's "condition" from hurting him when Cole is dead-set not to abandon her - and is it something he's willing/able to do? After all, the Old West offers solutions to the problem of "my best friend is in love with the wrong woman" that the modern world doesn't...
This was a nice surprise: An "offbeat" Western that works both as an action/drama and a slightly-skewed relationship piece. I liked it, I think a lot of you will, too.
FINAL RATING: 8/10