In the 1882 New Mexico Territory, Virgil Cole (Ed Harris) and Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen) are itinerant lawmen, hired as marshal and deputy by towns desperate to take control over outlaw elements. The town of Appaloosa hire them after Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons), a newly-arrived rancher with money and a gang of thugs, disrupts commerce and kills three local lawmen. Cole and Hitch contrive to arrest Bragg and bring him to trial, but hanging him proves difficult. Meanwhile, a widow has arrived in town, Allison French (Renee Zellwegger), pretty, refined, and good-natured. Virgil falls hard, and it seems mutual, but there may be more to Allie than meets the eye.
Review by Louise Keller:
The Western has never looked so good as in this story about the bond, trust and friendship between two gun-toting, law-abiding peacekeepers who try to right life's wrongs until the foreseeable becomes unforeseeable. The grand themes of loyalty and honour, when a man's word is law, seem absolutely appropriate in this grand, desolate and dusty setting, when craggy rocks and all shades of ochre, green and brown from the artists' palette fill the big screen. Dean Semler's wonderful cinematography captures it all - the isolation, the harshness and the toughness of life in 19th century New Mexico Territory. Wearing not only his actor's lawman hat, but also that of director and co-screenwriter, Ed Harris delivers a splendid film, filled with nuances, complexities and substance.
Adapted from Robert B. Parker's novel, the story hinges on the relationship between Harris' Marshall Virgil Cole and his Deputy Everett Hitch, played by Viggo Mortensen. Harris and Mortensen are masters of their craft and together they convey the ease of communication between their characters as though it was as simple as breathing. Like Harris and Mortensen, Cole and Hitch are a perfect team. At times Cole relies on Hitch to give him the eloquence he craves, while at other times, they have little need for words. When it comes to women, the men are very different. Hitch is intuitive and sensitive, whereas Cole, with a history of whores and squaws, is drawn to Renee Zellweger's Allison French, who plays the piano, dresses with a sense of respectability and bathes before bed. Ah yes, I hear you say. A woman... now the trouble begins. This of course, is entirely true, as the bond between the two men is irrevocably changed. Zellweger would not be my choice for the role of the widow who fears loneliness and leans to a specific kind of man, but this is Harris and Mortensen's film and nothing deters from that.
As is often said, it is the gravitas of the villain that defines a film, and here, the ever-charismatic Jeremy Irons spits out gravitas in bullets, as the articulate, intelligent and ruthlessly ambitious Randall Bragg, who uses violence, guile and charm as his persuasive tools. There are many wonderful moments, like those knowing smiles at breakfast for three after Cole and Allie's first night together, Bragg's piercing gaze that misses nothing, and the unforgettable fly-on-the wall conversations between Cole and Hitch. Harris directs inconspicuously, allowing the story to be told as simply and effectively as the friendship at its core. Engrossing cinema; a treat for all.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
This nuanced buddy movie is set in the old West, in a small town bullied by a familiar character from the genre, the well-to-do rancher with a bunch of thugs who impose themselves on the townsfolk and make life miserable. Their lawlessness descends to cold blooded murder, when Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons) shoots three lawmen who have come to arrest two of his henchmen for murder and rape.
While this is the beginning of the plot that drives the action, the real story is about the two mercenary lawmen hired to help Appaloosa: Virgil Cole (Ed Harris) and Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen), who have worked as a pair for a decade or more and enjoy a firm, masculine bond that provides the interior engine of the film. Cole is a no-nonsense man who declares that feelings'll get you killed. So when Ally French (Renee Zellwegger) turns his head, he's in for some dangerous times. Ed Harris helped adapt the novel for this movie and directs with a gritty determination to show the importance of male friendship.
Viggo Mortensen is a trustworthy ally in the project, an actor whose extraordinary range enables him to move his performance along the scale from 0 to 100 at will. His loyalty stands the test of time and even the test of Ally French ... and when the chips are really down, he does what a real buddy would do. Only in old West terms.
They say (or they should say) that a film is only as good as its main baddie, and Jeremy Irons makes the malevolent Randall Bragg seem genuinely interesting, as a man who knows his heart and doesn't much care if it's good or bad as long as it ticks to his head's beat. Timothy Spall is likeable and amusing as one of the town's councillors, elected no doubt simply for his willingness to seem important.
Zellweger doesn't do too much with her role as Ally, a woman whose appearances hide a flawed and edgy character. Zellweger's delivery smacks of self protection, not wanting to show the less attractive elements of Ally's personality too openly. The result is a muted performance, but it doesn't detract overtly from an engaging and interesting film.
Dean Semler's cinematography avoids over-romanticising the landscape and his inventive lighting solutions for interiors is a joy. Production design is likewise seamless, and the score doesn't intrude. Curiously, Roadshow tried hard to hide the film from both critics and the public on its theatrical release but those who tracked it down were rewarded.
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CAST: Ed Harris, Viggo Mortensen, Jeremy Irons, Timothy Spall, Renee Zellwegger,
PRODUCER: Ed Harris, Ginger Sledge
DIRECTOR: Ed Harris
SCRIPT: Ed Harris, Robert Knott (novel by Robert Parker)
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Dean Semler
EDITOR: Kathryn Himoff
MUSIC: Jeff Beal
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Waldemar Kalinowski
RUNNING TIME: 115 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Roadshow
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: March 12, 2009