Tuesday, January 12, 2010

APPALOOSA (2008)

I like a good Western. I love a great one. I watched APPALOOSA. It's a Western. Wanted to love it. I liked it. Watch it, and you'll understand why I'm writing this way.

All right, enough of that.

APPALOOSA is the tale of Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch, a pair of no-nonsense town-tamers-for-hire who rent out their law-enforcement skills to the town for which the film is named after a no-good cattle baron murders the town marshal and his deputies. Westernalia ensues. There's a love interest, Indians, gun-play--everything you'd expect in a Western. The film runs nearly two hours but only has enough story for about an-hour-and-a-half, and while, overall, it isn't really a great movie, it's a reasonably good one, and certainly enough great work went into it that I didn't feel it wasted any of my time.

The movie has several things in its favor.

The first is its dialog. Fantastic writing, a crossbreed of short, clipped, stylized, Hemingwayesque hardboiled, and quasi-aristocratic 19th century formalism. Very much unlike--and even against the grain of--what's usually found in Westerns. Very good.

Ed Harris directed as well as co-starred, and you can tell an actor was behind the camera, because it's all about the characters, which can be a problem in movies directed by actors, but in this case is actually the second thing working in APPALOOSA's favor. They're good characters, or mostly good, and the cast that portray them is as rock-solid as it gets, starting at the top with Harris and Viggo Mortensen, all the way down to the bit-players. A hell of a cast.[*]

Its third strength is a subtlety in the storytelling that is quite striking. Striking as subtlety goes, anyway. APPALOOSA doesn't go for emotional or visceral manipulation, not once--it shows what's happening, and leaves it up to the viewer to decide what the characters are thinking. This gives us some ambiguity with which to play, which means every viewer, by filling in the gaps, makes it a different movie in his or her own head, and that's not only good filmmaking; it's a kind I find particularly appealing. Of course, the problem with it is that those who don't want to (or can't) use their heads will probably just end up hating it, because it seems, to them, as empty as their own heads. But a movie comprehensible to a complete moron isn't a goal particularly well-suited for the creation of quality cinema, either, in spite of what Hollywood's money-men seem to think.

APPALOOSA's fourth strength is its score, which is, like the storytelling, subtle, and often quite good. Some of it isn't at all the sort of music you generally hear in Westerns, and while some of it isn't particularly standout-ish on the scale of Really Frickin' Impressive, it does work with the picture, really coming through very well at several points in the movie. This and its original elements certainly make it worth a mention.

The film's major faults are really only two. First is that it didn't quite have enough story for its running time, which meant some padding. No big deal, really. Second, and the major one, is that, for all it has going for it, it fails to be really great. I love a great Western. I liked APPALOOSA.

What else can you say?

--j.

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[*] Renée Zellweger, the female lead, has been singled out as an exception to this in some of the commentary on the film, which often marks her as an example of awful miscasting. I can see that perspective, but I think it's more a case of her just having a thankless part.

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