Saturday, October 11, 2008

Tale of Two Sundances: Appaloosa

At the end of Appaloosa, a lone cowboy rides off into the sun-tinged horizon of New Mexico circa 1882. In doing so, he is following a trail blazed by so many before him – the ride into the sunset being as much a staple of the Western movie as the cowboy and the horse – but he is heading nowhere in particular and he is in no particular hurry to get there. This much we know, not just because the metaphorical device is as self-evident as a fist-fight in a saloon or a duel on a dusty main drag, but also because, against all reason, the cowboy comes right out and says so. The clunky explanation is delivered in a bit of bow-tying voice-over that is as unnecessary as it is indicative of the film entire. Appaloosa, a Western heading nowhere in particular and in no particular hurry to get there, is a model of screenwriting mediocrity.

The film is based on a novel by Robert B Parker. Screenwriting duties were handled by Ed Harris, who also stars and directs, and Robert Knott. Neither Harris nor Knott has a previous screenwriting credit, and their lack of experience shows. Intending, I think, to be an examination of a pair of tight-lipped lawmen-for-hire, Appaloosa is instead just tight-lipped. Expressionless. If you recognize where the film aims to go, you can perhaps make some allowances and help it along. But the hard truth is that Appaloosa moves with all the purpose of a stray cut off from the herd. It doesn’t take us anywhere. It merely takes up time.

It’s a shame, because as lethargic as the film is, Harris’ passion for it is unmistakable. Working with cinematographer Dean Semler, whose Western credits include Young Guns, Dances With Wolves, The Alamo and even City Slickers, Harris frames his shots with the care of someone in love with the genre. Appaloosa lacks the opulence of The Assassination of Jesse James, which Roger Deakins approached with Malickian flare, but it gives us a handful of iconic two-shots of the contemplative cowboy leads Virgil Cole (Harris) and Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen), plus a seduction amidst a dust storm that’s so visually romantic that it feels as if it comes from Gone With The Wind. In these moments, Appaloosa is at least nice to look at. But because Harris and Knott fail to find the pulse of their story, that’s all that it is.

Appaloosa’s chief sin is that it is almost entirely without dramatic tension. It opens by announcing the villain, Jeremy Irons’ Randall Bragg, a wealthy rancher living just outside of town who shoots the local marshal rather than let two of his ranch hands get taken away to jail. Enter Virgil and Everett, gun-toting friends who roam the Southwest looking for little towns in need of peacekeepers. Tired of Bragg’s band of mischief-makers, Appaloosa’s three suits, who often appear to be the town’s only citizens, immediately enlist Virgil and Everett’s services. But if you figure this sets up Appaloosa to be a gritty battle between the lawmen and the lawless, you figure wrong. It’s just about this time that a train comes into town bringing with it the fine fashions and empty purse of Renee Zellweger’s Allison French. And immediately, Appaloosa takes on a new identity.

From here, Appaloosa is a love story, or perhaps a collection of them. Whatever it is, it’s poorly executed. Sitting in one chair we have Virgil, admittedly uncomfortable with even the concept of emotion, finding himself stirred by this newcomer. In another chair is Everett, equally quiet but obviously attracted, and yet bound first to Virgil. And last there’s Allison, who we grow to learn has an eye for everyone and is willing to take on all comers (pun intended). Her appeal, beyond being female, is never made clear. She has no money, no skills beyond the piano and, worst, no real personality. Without many lines to speak, Zellweger spares us a return to her hammy antics of Cold Mountain, but her performance is ghastly nonetheless, a collection of smiles, grins and beams. Allison is fool’s gold, but that doesn’t keep the character from being the underlying motivation of almost every scene following her introduction.

The other characters aren’t any more interesting. Villains usually make for ripe roles in Westerns, but Bragg is more bark than bite, and beyond that he’s a bore, thus continuing Irons’ recent streak of unmemorable bad guys. Meanwhile, Mortensen is given just one good scene as Everett, and it comes all too late to make an impact. For the most part, Everett is little more than Virgil’s mustachioed shadow, and the soulful Mortensen is routinely upstaged by the 8-gauge shotgun he carries. Then there’s Virgil, clad in black as if to highlight his lack of transparency. For Appaloosa to succeed, it needed to be driven by the perversity of Virgil’s twisted ethics and urges, but Virgil’s character seems made up of screenwriting concepts rather than actual emotions. Harris the writer fails Harris the actor, leaving Virgil looking more empty than distant. Frequently, shots of Virgil and Everett that are meant to suggest depth or poignancy merely evoke aimlessness.

To Harris’ credit, the gunplay in Appaloosa is thrillingly quick and vicious. Trouble is, that’s exactly the wrong kind of gunplay for a film that rarely feels worthy of our attention. As a frequent critic of the drawn-out “action” sequences that typify most adventures these days, I will have to dodge lightning bolts as I write this, but Appaloosa needed at least one free-for-all in which the shots pop like fireworks and the supply of ammunition is bottomless. This wasn’t the time to go for realistic minimalism. To imagine this film done right is to think of something closer to Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid – another Western with two men in love with the same woman and yet more in love with one another. “Who are those guys?” is the famous refrain from that film. I might ask the same question about Virgil and Everett. After almost two hours, I still didn’t know. Or maybe I was never made to care.


Mark said...

Nailed it! Or, as the Strother Martin character in "Butch Cassidy" sometimes says after spitting, "Bingo!"

Thank you for this excellent review, Jason. You captured my thoughts on this mediocre movie perfectly, especially the comparison to Butch and Sundance, which we just watched a week ago after Paul Newman died. In fact I thought of posting about "Appaloosa" myself, with the headline "Who are those guys?"

Mediocrity, in fact, might be overstating the screenwriting in this one. In addition to the shortcomings you mention, Michelle and I were both struck by how many scenes just sit there, without advancing the story or the characters.

You're right that the movie's central problems are lack of tension or cohesion. I also think that, even allowing for the poor structure and writing, Renee Zellweger was a terrible choice for the female lead/love interest. Maybe it's me -- she has never done it for me -- but aside from her lack of money and personality, I don't think she looks anywhere near good enough to arouse so much attention, even from a couple dusty cowpokes tired of polishing their own 8-gauges. Katharine Ross? Yeah, I get that. Renee, not so much.

It's too bad, because I was really looking forward to this, based mostly on the chemistry that Harris and Mortensen had in "History of Violence" and the hope -- horribly dashed -- that "Appaloosa" would be something akin to "Unforgiven."

Not quite. Unless you count being "the duck of death."

Richard Bellamy said...

Well, you know, I love Westerns, and a lot of what you say is true - not much happens - but it is nice to look at and I'm actually going to see it again tonight. "Open Range" was so much better than this one. Here's another example of disappointing writing - Everett gets the Apache's lance in exchange for the horse, and he carries it to the Mexican town, but he never gets to use it!

Jason Bellamy said...

Thanks for the comments, fellas.

Mark: I think the Ross/Zellweger comparison really underlines how a small, underwritten part can make all the difference. Beyond allure, Ross suggests depth; her character is hardly developed, but it doesn’t feel that way. Zellweger’s only depth is the byproduct of the way Mortensen looks at her, not of her own design. But note that in “Butch & Sundance” Ross’ character accentuates our understanding of the main characters. By contrast, in “Appaloosa” Zellweger’s character is the key to what little dramatic tension the screenplay attempts to muster. It’s too much of a burden on too small a part, and Zellweger can’t carry the load.

As for your observation that several scenes fail to advance the plot, I thought that too. But then I considered that Harris/Knott think otherwise. Somehow, I imagine they believe this is a character examination in the same vein as “There Will Be Blood.” I think they believe that Virgil being Virgil is the plot. Regardless, the screenplay fails.

Hokahey: I’m aware of the fact that you’re giving “Appaloosa” a second go on a slow weekend for releases. Still, if this movie is worth a second viewing, it might be time for an intervention – Western fan or not.

The entire Apache sequence you mention is problematic. Going back to Mark’s point, it does nothing to advance the story and should have been cut completely. It’s an unnecessary detour that by the end is much ado about nothing.

On one thing we agree, however: Walking out of the theater, my first thought was: Wow, “Open Range” is going to go down as the best Western of the decade. It’s not even close.

Richard Bellamy said...

I must explain - I saw "Appaloosa" again last night because I went with my wife who is a Viggo fan.

On second viewing, the film felt slower. I agree - visually it is artfully done but there is hardly any tension. Strangely enough, it struck me during my second viewing that the writers missed a big chance for a very dramatic storyline that would go like this - the townspeople hire Virgil and Ev - but things get out of hand (this seems led up to with the first bloodbath in which three bad guys are killed and with Virgil beating up the loud guy at the bar) - the hired lawmen rid the town of the bad guys but at a high cost - with civilians killed in the crossfire and the town partially destroyed; then the townspeople have to turn on the hired gunman to rid themselves of the problem they caused.

Actually, I've seen Westerns like this ("Warlock" with Henry Fonda), but the story could use an update. Guess I'll have to write it myself.

Jason Bellamy said...

Okay, Hokahey. We won’t take away your frequent-moviegoer card.

Great points about the screenplay. Even if the townspeople didn’t revolt against the lawmen, we could have at least been treated to an examination of what happens when the dirty work causes the dirty worker to fall out of favor, ala “The Dark Knight.”