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Appaloosa

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Appaloosa

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Release Date: September 19
Director: Ed Harris
Writers: Robert Knott, Ed Harris
Cinematographer: Dean Semler
Starring: Ed Harris, Viggo
Mortensen, Jeremy Irons, Renée Zellweger
Studio/Run Time: Warner Bros.
Pictures, 114 mins.



If you’re setting out to make a
Western, you can deconstruct and reinvent the genre like filmmakers
have been doing for four decades. Or, you can rely on the tried and
true conventions of a bygone era: loners on the plain, justice in the
barrel of a gun, and romance thwarted by hard life on the range. In
the hands of a good director, even the basics of this purely American
genre have a certain charm.

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For Appaloosa, his second film
as a director, Ed Harris relies firmly on the basics. And on paper it
seems like they could work: a bad man (Jeremy Irons sounding a bit
like Daniel Day-Lewis) and his gang run the town of Appaloosa, but
the new marshall (Harris) and his deputy (Viggo Mortenson) aim to
clean up the place. Meanwhile, a perfumed, corseted, petticoated
woman (Renée Zellwegger) steps off a train and catches the eye
of the marshal who marvels at her being neither a whore nor a squaw.



Appaloosa has a solid enough
opening, and it should be fun just to watch things play out, what
with all the shootouts, the trains, the swagger at gunpoint. But the
script (co-written by Harris) is alternately dumb and lifeless. The
villain with his dozen men can’t seem to best a marshal and his
deputy in a contest of brute force, and the romance, which seems like
it was meant to be comic relief, repeatedly grinds everything to a
halt, mostly because there’s very little to laugh at and nothing much
to be relieved of. The turgid, tentative courtship between the
marshal and miss Allison French operates like junior high locker
gossip (“Did she mention me?”), and the banter between the
marshal and his loyal right hand sounds like reheated dialogue from
Butch and Sundance.



The performances are convincing enough
that I wish these characters were in a better movie. Harris himself
is wearing lots of hats on this project, and he seems particularly
comfortable in the 10-gallon variety. But as a director he offers no
firm ground for our hooves to catch. There’s plenty of scenery but no
visual scheme to situate his characters in a world more complicated
than “he good, he bad, she perty, town quaint.”



One reason the Western has been so
adaptable since the birth of cinema, even as attitudes toward, say,
Indians, have changed, is that talented directors have used those
wide vistas and harsh elements as moral purifiers. A butte can make a
big man tiny. Red clay can make a white skirt dingy. But scenery
without ideas can’t make a mediocre movie good.




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