MOVIE: Appaloosa (2008)

appaloosa1I’m having a hard time with this one.  I actually saw it over a week ago and I STILL can’t decide if I liked it or not.  The film, based on a novel by Robert B. Parker, has all of the elements that I typically love about Westerns: intense male bonding, a smidge of romance, good guys versus bad guys, where the good guys aren’t really all that “good” but aren’t as “bad” as the bad guys so it’s close enough, etc. But at the same time, there’s almost too MUCH of the stuff I typically love about Westerns — which is the exact same problem I had with Parker’s novel, so I suppose this should have come as no surprise.

The story is about two old friends, Virgil Cole (Ed Harris) and his “strong and silent type” partner Hitch (Viggo Mortensen), who travel around working as lawmen for hire, helping towns that are having, shall we say, “security” problems.  Their latest gig is in the town of Appaloosa, where the mayor and others  have hired them to battle a bad guy named Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons), a rancher who has been trying to take over the town.  As Hitch and Cole settle in, they also become involved with another newcomer to Appaloosa, a young woman named Allison French (Renee Zellwigger), who Cole quickly falls madly in love with.  But Allison isn’t quite the “good girl” she makes herself out to be, leading to a series of complications that make Cole’s job in Appaloosa all the more challenging.

Here’s the thing, though.  As was the case with the novel, I never really felt like any of the characters in this film ever truly came alive.  Of the four stars, I would say Viggo came the closest, but that’s partly because his character’s job was mostly to look serious and occasionally throw out a sentence now and again.  Viggo’s good at that brooding, distant kinda thing.  Harris, on the other hand, was sadly forgettable as Virgil Cole, and that’s despite the fact he had the one role in the movie that involved a degree of wit.  Zellwegger I was more or less bored by, whatev’, and Jeremy Irons?  I don’t know why he was cast in his part to begin with.  He was completely wrong for it.

That said, the film did have its moments.  There’s a slowness about it — a loping easiness, I guess — that brings a nice rhythm to the story.  It’s a quiet movie about two extremely close friends doing their best to make the world a better place, and the relationship between Virgil and Hitch was one of the few that I felt actually had a little bit of chemistry to it.  There’s also a very intriguing lack of violence in this movie, which was a pretty interesting way to make a Western.  The one big shoot-out scene is over in seconds, and the characters even comment on it, Hitch saying, “That happened quick,” and Cole replying, “Everybody could shoot.”  I got a chuckle out of that, because I always find it kind of ridiculous how many times in movies and TV the shoot-em-up scenes last forever because nobody seems like they could hit the broad side of a barn with a tractor.

In any case, meh, I don’t know.  I thought Ed Harris might’ve been able to take the novel and transform it into something with a little more depth (he wrote the screenplay, in addition to starring in it), but I’m not convinced he did.  I mostly felt kind of underwhelmed the whole time I was watching this movie, and it hasn’t really lingered with me at all.  It’s not a BAD movie.  It’s just not that interesting or unique either.  I’ll try it again sometime soon and see if it goes down better the second time around (when expectations are lower, see?).

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Genre: Western
Cast:  Ed Harris, Viggo Mortensen, Renee Zellwegger, Jeremy Irons, James Gammon, Timothy V. Murphy

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13 Responses to “MOVIE: Appaloosa (2008)”

  1. Trip Says:

    Perhaps this movie would resonate with older men more than anyone else. It’s all about the choices the guys made along the way. They chose to take up the life of the gun and all that entails, they excelled, and now they’re both getting on in years, and it’s time to make decisions about what to do with the time left.

    Virgil makes his choice with Zellweger’s character despite revelations about her own moral fabric, so Viggo is then forced to make his own.

    I especially liked the way the characters handled the conflict with the Indians…they did what older seasoned dudes really would have done, rather than what younger piss-n-vinegar types would have done.

    The movie even takes place at a rather late date for Westerns, at a time when there wasn’t much expansion space left in the West…the sun is setting on everyone and everything, so time to make good while the getting’s good.

  2. megwood Says:

    Well, let’s not romanticize Cole and Allison’s relationship — it seems pretty clear to me he hooks up with her because he’s getting on in years and thinks it’s time to settle down and she seems like she’d “do” because she’s not a prostitute (note: that’s the first question he asks her — you a whore? — and when her answer is satisfactory, he pretty much marries her on the spot).

    And then he sticks with her for roughly the same reasons, despite her “moral shortcomings.” It’s not really about her at all.

    Nevertheless, I think the theme of “getting on in years and trying to decide what to do with the time left” is one that can resonate with everyone, older men and the rest of us, if it’s done well. There are lots of Westerns that are about old cowboys/gunslingers trying to figure out what to do with their lives now that they are past their prime — Unforgiven leaps immediately to mind, and was a movie that both resonated with me and knocked my figurative socks off.

    Here, it just wasn’t done that well. Not in the book, and not in the film. In my opinion, anyway.

  3. Trip Says:

    Well he should have armed himself if he was gonna decorate his saloon with my friend.

    (OK, why don’t I own that on DVD yet anyway?)

  4. megwood Says:

    Seriously — Unforgiven is brilliant. Why don’t *I* own that on DVD yet?

    “We all got it comin’, kid.”

  5. OldMan Says:

    I was just forced to watch this for an English Comp class and am now writing an analytical essay on it. My essay seemed too negative so I Googled Appaloosa and found your review Meg. My essay follows your review pretty closely. I like the movie the first time through. It was fun and a little surprising at times. What really ruined it for me was watching it again to get the details for my essay. Upon the second viewing this became almost as vacuous as “Tinman”. The characters in Appaloosa are interesting once and boring as a box of rocks the second time around. If you haven’t watched it that second time yet I’d recommend leaving it alone. It can only get worse. Also, I’m a 47 year old male so if that counts as an “older man” I sure did not like this movie. Maybe I’ll need to wait until I’m 60?

  6. Tom Says:

    This has to be the one of the worst movie I have ever seen. What a terrible screen play. Boring as hell. Zellweger goes through the movie with that dumb smirky grin. Even the gunfire sounds phooney. I’m only glad that I didn’t pay the price at the box office to see this. I couldn’t believe how bad this movie was. I don’t need gunfire all the time to make a great Western, but come on. Tom Horn and The Shootist are two of my favorites, and not overdone with gunplay. I guessed that somone with little experience in screen writing and directing (Ed Harris), was at fault for this piece of junk.

  7. megwood Says:

    I agree, Tom! I just rewatched it about two weeks ago in case my original disappointment had been due to too-high expectations — even worse the second time!

    • Tom Says:

      Hey Meg
      I think you would like “Tom Horn” with Steve McQueen, and “The Shootist” with John Wayne, if you have not seen them. I’m sure you have. Also, you have to catch “Monte Walsh”, the Lee Marvin version. There was a remake, but this is the one. Lee Marvin was one of the best Western characters. I love Westerns, these films are some good ones. Thanks for posting, this is the first time I have seen you. Appaloosa was just on the T.V., and I started to watch part of it ( it was unwatchable), and I said to myself I have to see who gets credit for this movie, and I put it in search and your site came up. Glad to have met you.

  8. megwood Says:

    “Tom Horn” is one of my all-time favorites! I haven’t seen Lee Marvin’s “Monte Walsh,” though — will definitely check that one out! (First Lee Marvin Western I ever saw, by the way, was “Cat Ballou” — made me fall madly in love with him! Kid Shelleen!)

    Thanks for posting, Tom! Glad to have met you as well!

  9. Jane Scott Says:

    Loved this movie, have watched it multiple times, Love seeing a different depiction of what the West may have been. (thank goodness, there is more dimension than Wayne’s movies provide.) Loved the respect, loyalty, devotion of Cole and Hitch, fallibility of Allie; (there are such people) Cole’s line that “feelings will get you killed” would have betrayed him, because if there had been a chapter 2, Allie would have ditched him and his days as a lawman would have been over (killed)–ironic. Movies should be judged on their own, not by comparison to John Wayne fare. Music was great, scenery impressive, train sequences nostalgic and beautiful. And how about the mountain lion? loved this insert. Gunshot sounds realistic, pops, not blasts. The “look” of the movie was on target. Costuming was authentic and how about Hitch’s 1800’s hairstyle.? Am a real fan of westerns made today and looking forward to a sequel to this. Critics might take another look at the history of western settlement; it was many faceted, not cookie-cutter as might be thought from the genre of depictions 30 years ago. Re-watch this movie, the story stands on its own, presented western-style is only the vehicle for telling it.

  10. megwood Says:

    Glad you enjoyed the movie, Jane!

  11. CarBec Says:

    I just watched “Appaloosa,” and loved the authenticity of the period. Hitch, Cole, and Ally actually dressed for the era (as far as I know). The train scene and native confrontation was beautifully portrayed. The zen-like qualities of both Hitch and Cole were juxtaposed to the base character of Bragg and the human qualities of Ally. It’s not as wonderful as “Unforgiven,” but it’s up there.

  12. Movie review: “Appaloosa” « Grains of Sand Says:

    […] You can see the trailer here, as well as an interview by Chuck the MovieGuy with Viggo Mortensen, who stars in the movie. For a detailed synopsis, see the IMDB and the Wikipedia, and for a good review, see Meg Wood’s blog review. […]

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