Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Film Review #193: Appaloosa
Director: Ed Harris
Cast: Ed Harris, Viggo Mortensen, Renee Zellweger, Ariadna Gil

It’s a scene that replays the second time as well as you remember the first. Announced by the whistle of the noonday train, the comely St. Louis widow, Mrs. Allison French (Renée Zellweger), unexpectedly alights in the town of Appaloosa, New Mexico Territory, 1882. Gliding through the incessant wind and dust, she crosses the broad main street, makes her way into the café. From his horse Deputy Marshall Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen) watches this, follows her with his eyes and his whole torso, cat-like, cranes his neck, almost forgets himself. Even his horse pricks its ears and prances, tightly reined. Heightening all this tension, there’s Jeff Beal’s light film score of strings plucked and bowed, woozy with sharps and flats.

These exhilarating few minutes are as witty and affecting a snapshot of a man’s sudden fascination as exists on film, and reason enough to see this one, although more exist. The movie is last year’s vastly underrated Western from Ed Harris, Appaloosa, adapted from Robert B. Parker’s 2005 novel. With mixed reviews from critics, Appaloosa still did well enough with audiences for a five-month theatrical run and has been out on DVD since January. But Central New Yorkers can see it again on the big screen at the Eastwood Palace during this year’s Syracuse International Film Festival. Afterward there’s a Q&A with actor Tom Bower, a returning friend of the film festival, co-screenwriter Robert Knott and film score composer and trumpeter Beal.

Ed Harris produced, co-scripted and, in his second such effort, directed Appaloosa. He also he stars as Virgil Cole, itinerant mercenary peace-keeper. But it’s Hitch’s voice-over that book-ends the film. If the two men often communicate with little more than nods and glances it’s not that Hitch is tongue-tied. This fastidious, disciplined man begins by informing us that he’d come West, a West Point graduate like his father before him, after the War Between the States. He did some Indian fighting – the Indian Wars also closed down Appaloosa’s copper mine some years back – then Hitch had joined up with Cole a dozen years ago. Appaloosa is the story of how the two hire out to rid this town of its resident warlord, Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons), and his thugs, and how each in his way outgrows the other.

Led by hotel owner Abner Raines (Tom Bower), a trio of city fathers hire Cole and Hitch after two of Bragg’s louts accost a Chicago businessman who’s come to re-open the mine, murder him and rape his wife; Bragg murders the marshall when he tries to arrest them. Hitch and Cole settle in, the latter smitten by Mrs. French. Hitch passes time with a bar girl (the excellent Spaniard Ariadna Gil, who I wish had gotten a heftier role as Katie).

In a fairly traditional working-out of plot, Cole and Hitch catch Bragg. He’s convicted, escapes, is caught again and eventually returns to town - pardoned by the president - to set himself up as new owner of the town hotel-casino. These circumstances serve as the means for Hitch and Cole to work out their relationship and that which each has with Mrs. French, some of which centers around whether Hitch made a pass at her or vice versa.

Less traditional is that the promise of Hitch’s first glimpse of "Allie – she likes to be called Allie" does not play out in the usual way; Hitch wastes little time getting clear that pursuit of Mrs. French is not a good idea. But that lovely first glimpse means he has great empathy for the effect she has on Cole – enough to ask Cole at one point a most unusual question among men in a Western, "Are you alright – how do you feel?"

What is satisfying about this film is its more nuanced comment on American life than might have been the case. Ever the reliable measure and mirror of our national mood, the Western has enjoyed a come-back in the new millennium’s first decade of terrorism, "ungoverned spaces," nation-building and our deep recoil at our own violent behavior. Hence such rich successes as David Milch's Deadwood and the Cohen Brothers' No Country for Old Men, for example. The Western has both offered enough distance to work out how we feel about current conflicts abroad and related policies at home, and a ready slate for the reinvention and escape from history that frontiers promise. As a form, the Western often straddles a line between the two.

There are plenty of moments when Appaloosa veers toward literalism. For example, when Cole and Hitch make their bargain with the jittery town fathers, Cole says – easily evoking the last eight years – "We need a lot of laws to make it all legal." Intriguingly, the DVD extras suggest that Harris considered – certainly prepared and filmed – a number of scenes that could have taken Appaloosa much further in that direction. There’s a deleted scene that would've opened the film with the Chicago entrepreneur demonstrating how the town's re-opened copper mine will supply a new electrical industry just emerging back East, followed by the actual attack on him and his wife. And there’s a deleted scene in which Bragg reintroduces himself to the townspeople after his apparent transformation with words so common in public life in recent years, "I’ve been an evil man…. God had a plan for me."

Instead Harris has chosen another emphasis with greater imaginative possibilities. So for example, as a function of his bond with Hitch, Cole is comfortable enough to explore the new meanings that go with reinvention and will find their way into practice. One of these concerns Cole’s taste for broadening his vocabulary. Interestingly, while Mrs. French’s teasing leaves Cole flustered and angry because he’s not sure what she means, he’s confident enough of his standing with Hitch to ask for "the word I mean" when he falters. These exchanges involve concepts and discernment that one grows into with a frontier’s spaciousness – the opposite of using such space simply for blunt liberty as Bragg’s men do – concepts like "jurisdiction," "commiserate," "sequester," "disparage," "arduous," and the perhaps modern notion the killing is a "by-product" of enforcing the law.

Although the film festival prides itself on its internationalism, screening a film like Appaloosa and then offering the opportunity to talk about it provide a new appreciation of classic American cinema.

A shorter version of this review appears in the April 16, 2009 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly print edition. Appaloosa screens at the Syracuse International Film Festival on Thursday, April 30 at 7:00 PM at the Palace Theater on James Street in Eastwood. Q&A afterward with the film’s co-writer/producer Robert Knott, cast member Tom Bower and film score composer Jeff Beal. Earlier Thursday, at 2:00 PM, Jeff Beal is part of a discussion on "Music and Sound in Film" in Hamlin Auditorium, Newhouse 3 on Waverly Avenue at Syracuse University, along with sound designer/editor Jane Tattersall, founder of Canada’s largest sound studio, Tattersall Sound. Check for festival programming and special events.