Friday, October 3, 2008

Appaloosa is Western Lite

Ed Harris and Vigo Mortensen see what should not be seen.

Appaloosa should be better than it is. Or maybe it should be worse.

The story over shifting loyalty is compelling. Ed Harris and Vigo Mortensen have unbeatable chemistry as town marshall Virgil Cole and deputy Everett Hitch. Most characters are painted in shades of grey. So, I'm going to single out the tone. Yes, the tone is wrong. Appaloosa isn't quite a comedy, since the humor is often accidental. I can't call it a drama, because it skips into shades of light when it should be dark and subdued. Yet, this lack of seriousness is entirely in opposition to some incredible acting of two very serious characters facing rather serious situations -- not just bad guys with guns, but the advent of the capitalist into the west. Because the film never quite leans towards sheer entertainment or in-depth study, I was left dissatisfied.

The perfect example of misplaced humor occurs when Virgil tries to have a conversation with Russell Brigg's stablehand about the murders of the previous town marshall and his posse. Virgil dismisses his girlfriend Allie French (Rene Zellweger) who retreats to the parlor and begins practicing piano scales. This pivotal scene becomes zany, if not absurdist, with the imprecise notes in the background. This is not the moment for humor and it turns a good scene into a lousy one.

Of course, if the film is a fluffy, saccharine Western, then it isn't funny enough and it seems such a waste for the amazing performances of both Harris and Mortensen's. Harris is perfect as stoney lawman, poker faced, never unruffled at work, but whose entire face breaks out into smile lines in the presence of his beloved. He is a wonderful character, and Harris brings such fullness to him -- even when he stumbles over multisyllabic words. Mortensen can do more with the way he holds his body and looks with his eyes than most people can write in a daily tell-all blog. He is precise as the airy, wiry sharp shooter with his oversized 8 gauge shotgun. Even Zellweger, who does not bring the same game as the other two leads, brings a certain levity to a character that could easily have become a barracuda. Allie Finch is innocent, playful, but also... flaw driven. Her flaw, though, is to align herself with the resident stallion for self protection from her fears -- lonliness, lack of money, lack of protection.

The other gripe I have is that the film lacks subtlety. Though Harris and Mortensen give perfect delivery of every line, I would have preferred less dialogue. Everett talks about feelings, tries to coax Virgil into revealing where his loyalties lie. It would be far more appropriate to convey the same with expression and gesture. Similarly, it was unnecessary to show Allie French splashing naked with her captors, when a gesture of affection would have had the same affect, but without misplaced zaniness.

All in all, the story is interesting, the acting top shelf, but the film lacks the heart, feel, and consideration of more recent "serious" Westerns (Brokeback Mountain, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) and lacks the punchiness and overstatement of those that are strictly for entertainment purposes (3:10 to Jima).

Appaloosa opens Oct 10 in theaters in Montreal

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