As always, I write these articles under the assumption that you’ve seen the movie, so...SPOILERS.
Technically this is the second western I’ve written about this month, but Tombstone was just a late post. So Appaloosa is the official western post for July. It’s been a while since I watched this movie. In fact, I’m pretty sure this is one of those DVDs that I watched when I first bought it and have not seen since. My memories of this film were that it was a traditional western, which I like, but it also had some non-traditional elements to it, as well. This is the best of both worlds for me. I tend to like the weirder westerns more, but I still enjoy a straightforward film. Appaloosa is both, although the non-traditional elements are what make it stand out.
Traditional western, buddy comedy, or love triangle (or square or pentagon)?
When looking at Appaloosa broadly it is very much a classic western. Two lawmen for hire (Ed Harris and Viggo Mortensen) are tasked by the town leaders of Appaloosa to deal with a renegade rancher (Jeremy Irons) who murdered the previous peacekeepers of the town. The arrival of a woman (Renee Zellweger) complicates things for all involved. And it’s all presented in a traditional way, with a focus on realism. The locations, costumes, music, etc. all feel very common for the genre. That’s not to say they are generic. It’s all very well done; it’s just what you’d expect. The gun fights are a bit different as they’re presented in a more realistic manner than most typical westerns.
The characters make Appaloosa a bit different from most westerns. While Ed Harris’s character is considered an honest, straightforward man, he is still quite complex. He just talks about it. Harris and Mortensen talk about how they’re going to handle typical western problems, but they also talk about their feelings. For whatever reason, I love this kind of stuff in a western (hence my love for The Sisters Brothers). I like the gunplay in this movie, but my favorite scenes are of Harris and Mortensen discussing relationships. At one point Mortensen has to tell Harris that Zellweger did kiss him, but he didn’t kiss her back. That’s funny to me not only for the absurdity of such a discussion as they prepare for a shootout, but also because of the matter-of-fact banter the two have.
The pairing of Harris and Mortensen is the highlight of the film. Many of their scenes are intentionally funny. The film is truly a buddy cop comedy set in the Old West. It’s made that much funnier because of how nonchalant they are about killing people. It’s just part of the job for them, so it’s not something they really think about. Harris is more concerned with what Mortensen told Zellweger about him...or about which curtain fabrics he should choose for his new house...or how to properly use the word “sequester” (which he uses a second time later in the movie for a funny, subtle callback).
The cause of most their funny conversations is Zellweger, who gives a funny performance, as well. At first, her appearance seems fairly normal in the film. She is a love interest for Harris who is kidnapped later on. It’s typical damsel in distress stuff until Harris and Mortensen see her running around naked with her supposed captor. It turns out Zellweger is a survivor, and she will latch on to the strongest person she can find for her own safety. She gets with Harris immediately when she sees that he’s the leader of the duo, but then makes a movie on Mortensen when she feels Harris is too distracted, then hooks up with her captor since he now has the power, then appears to be getting close to Irons once he’s pardoned and taking over the town. Hence, the “love pentagon” mentioned in the topic title. (Also, Love Pentagon would be a good band or porno name.) To dismiss her as a “whore” would be lazy. It actually makes her a very interesting female character in a western, which is certainly a rarity. She’s using what men want from her to ensure her safety. Now, one could argue about how promptly she moves on to her captor, but desperate times call for desperate measures.
Her actions lead to some of the funniest moments of the film, as she explains herself to Harris. Zellweger’s tone is perfect in these moments. She infuses every line with a sense of “what did you expect me to do?” that cracks me up. And the anger in her face when she turns on Mortensen in desperation is hilarious, especially when Mortensen calmly denies her claims and Harris believes him over her.
I’m aware that writing about these conversations and character moments don’t do the film justice, but that’s what makes Appaloosa special. It’s different, but in small ways. Perhaps it’s just my odd taste, but those little quirks are why I own this movie yet I don’t have a single John Wayne movie in my collection.
Why do I own this?
All of the above, but I had really forgotten how interesting this movie is, so I’m glad it’s in my collection. And I’ll definitely watch it again when I go through another western kick.
According to IMDb trivia, this was meant to be the first film in a series that followed Mortensen and Harris. I love the idea, but how would that work? The ending seemed pretty definitive. Although it would be funny if there was a sequel in which Harris tracked down Mortensen because Zellweger left him for whoever took Irons’s place.
This was clearly a passion project of Ed Harris’s since this is only his second directorial effort (after Pollock) and his only writing credit. Westerns tend to bring that out in actors. John C Reilly purchased the rights to The Sisters Brothers in the hopes of one day making it, and Kurt Russell essentially took over production to make sure Tombstone got made. I think these actors grew up with westerns and always dreamed of making a great one and realized they had to make it happen on their own since Hollywood has largely abandoned the genre.
Jeremy Irons is great, but I always have a hard time watching him with an American accent. It's not bad; it's just that his voice doesn't lend itself to an American accent. Does that make sense? Maybe it's just me.
I'm not crazy about that opening narration… I'm not against narration in general, it's just that most of the shit Viggo says could be revealed naturally through dialogue and actions throughout the film. He certainly doesn't need to keep mentioning his 8 gauge. We become well aware of that gun throughout the movie.
"Put your little contraptions away." That has to be the first time a penis had been called a contraption.
The suddenness of the violence early on is great. Definitely makes you realize anything and happen in a moment's notice in the film.
Timothy Spall is the go-to "flustered man in a 1800s setting" with this and The Last Samurai.
Ed Harris's first interaction with Zellweger is so damn strange. I don't like seeing Ed Harris smitten…
"Killing's sometimes a sorta side-thing that happens."
Do NOT ask Ed Harris about his sex life or he will nearly beat to death the nearest bystander.
I definitely don't like seeing "giddy after a night of banging" Ed Harris.
I love the look on Viggo's face when he hands the spyglass to Harris to see Zellweger gallivanting around naked with her supposed kidnapper.
"Chews her food good...but apparently she'll fuck anything that ain't gelded."
You have to appreciate a movie that involves Chester A. Arthur in a plot point.
I like the ending and the sacrifice Viggo makes, but that ending narration almost ruins it. It just spells out things you already know. It would have been much more powerful if it simply ended in silence. I get the desire to end on a poetic note, but there is such a thing as visual poetry too.
I was not expecting (and had completely forgotten) the Tom Petty song over the end credits. It's not bad or anything, but, like a lot of little things with this movie, it was unexpected.