Two things I learned about Ed Harris while watching Appaloosa: one, Ed Harris is a great admirer of classic Western cinema; two, Ed Harris is not a director. His heart is there but his vision just isn’t. The first of these truths is clear straight away. By polarizing the two scenes that precede the title screen, the first establishing our hero and the second our villain, he brands Appaloosa with an essential ideology of the classic Western, Good vs. Evil. With this dichotomy always at the fore, he paces alternately with purpose and languor through the quintessential narrative of the genre: Marshal-for-hire (Harris) with faithful comrade (Viggo Mortensen) pursues societal transgressor (Jeremy Irons) for the preservation of social and moral order. The second of these truths reveals itself just as quickly by way of the visually enclosing and often impatient sequences through which this narrative unfolds. It is here that Harris’ methodology veers from the traditional. Movement through space and a diminutive sense of scale are replaced by screen-crowding midrange and close-up shots, and the result is a hobbling of the most important character of the genre, the West itself.
This contradiction strands Appaloosa in a curious gray area. Like a ranchhand straddling a distinct property line yet uncertain of where to drive his post, the film tries to claim for itself elements of both the classic and revisionist Western genres. Despite its spiritual adherence to the tropes of the former, Appaloosa was made in 2008 and not 1958 and so, for better or worse, must be considered in the latter camp, alongside films like (2005) The Proposition and The Assassination of Jesse James (2007). However, unlike these films, the first grinding moralism into dust with its boot, and the second compelled by the nascent cult of celebrity, Appaloosa fails to sufficiently undermine or broaden the boundaries of the classic Western. Aside from its introduction of a prominent, independent female character (Renee Zellweger), which is hardly new (see The Quick and the Dead (1995), McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)), Appaloosa walks a pretty straight line. And it is a line I find to be well whipped.
Familiarity naturally unspools into predictability, and this is where Appaloosa does itself the most disservice. By attempting to align itself with the ghost of John Ford the film becomes a backward-looking exercise, one that reminds us of how great those Westerns of the 1940s and 50s were, but also how unrepeatable they are in the present cinematic landscape of moral ambiguity. The world and the men in it, we know, are not as black and white as the Clantons and the Earps. So it is an impossible task to reclaim what was, but nostalgia persists. And like all things nostalgia, Appaloosa unwittingly devours the heart of that which it loves, reducing the classic Western to little more than a collection of hollow movements.
Blinders, gentlemen. Blinders on. Virtue resides in that ever-setting sun. [DVD]
DVD Release Date: 1/13/09