Friday, October 23, 2015

Tonight's Movie: Appaloosa (2008) at the Lone Pine Film Festival

The last "new to me" film seen at the Lone Pine Film Festival was APPALOOSA (2008).

APPALOOSA, a much more recent film than the majority of the films shown at the festival, was screened with co-writer and co-producer Robert Knott in attendance. The movie was co-written, co-produced, and directed by its star, Ed Harris.

I had been a little unsure about trying APPALOOSA, as R-rated movies are fairly rare for me, but it's a movie my dad liked so I decided to give it a try. As it turned out I enjoyed it a great deal, and I think other fans of classic-era Westerns would enjoy it as well.

(And to take care of my usual Parental Advisory for "newer" movies up front, APPALOOSA is rated R for some brief language, violence, and rear-view nudity seen at a distance. In my opinion it's very close to a PG-13 and would probably be fine for mature teens under 17.)

APPALOOSA was based on a novel by Robert B. Parker, whose writing also inspired a TV series I enjoy, SPENSER: FOR HIRE. Like SPENSER, APPALOOSA is first and foremost a character study, though there's plenty of action as well.

Virgil Cole (Harris) and Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen) are town tamers, enforcing the law as marshal and deputy -- as long as a town's leading citizens are willing to sign their contract for services. By the time the mayor of the wild Western town of Appaloosa summons Cole and Hitch, he's only too happy to agree to their price and conditions, and they immediately set about cleaning up the town.

The biggest problem is Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons), who gunned down the previous marshal (Bobby Jauregui) and two other men in cold blood and then hid the bodies. The vanished marshal was a friend of Virgil's, and he's determined to find a way for Bragg to be tried for the crime.

Meanwhile a woman named Allie French (Renee Zellweger) gets off the train in Appaloosa. She has little in her purse but immediately intrigues both Virgil and Everett, with Virgil awkwardly but successfully courting her. What seems as though it will be a quick, straightforward happy ending for the pair, who set about building a little house in town, turns out to be considerably more complicated, as Allie latches on to a succession of men and even makes a play for Everett.

At 115 minutes the movie goes on just a beat too long, with another sequence after what seems a natural ending point, but all in all this was a very good movie. I thoroughly enjoyed the performances of Harris and Mortensen in particular, both their humorous repartee and also the unspoken interactions of men who have known each other for many years.

Both actors are truly excellent as two very well-written, fully formed characters; of the two, I especially enjoyed observing Mortensen and the way he constantly backs Virgil, both physically and emotionally. Everett is the observant man always sitting quietly in a corner with his rifle, ready to leap into action at a moment's notice, and he's also the man who clears the playing field for Virgil with Allie, although Everett spotted her first. This deference doesn't diminish Mortensen's character, but makes him more powerful; he's easily the most mature character in the movie.

While most of APPALOOSA plays very well, there are a couple of flaws in the story and/or screenplay. The first is that it made no sense to me that men as experienced and cagey as Virgil and Everett didn't see that they had a chink in the armor, namely Allie, which could be successfully manipulated by Bragg. Did they think a cold-blooded killer would be a gentleman and leave her out of the situation? I'm intentionally being a bit vague so as not to be too spoilerish, as it's a major turning point in the story.

I also found it interesting that a scene where Virgil has, shall we say, "anger management issues" and is restrained by Everett isn't developed further. It seemed as though that moment was setting up something deeper to be explored in the character, but they never end up going there.

My only other negative feedback on the film is that I didn't especially enjoy Renee Zellweger's Allie, but I can't quite decide if that was more a function of the actress or the character. I've liked Zellweger fine in other films, but she seemed a bit out of place here, and while her rather "lived in" appearance in this film might have fit a character struggling to survive in a rough environment, at the same time I didn't quite get why she enthralled so many men. Perhaps her constant "availability" to the most powerful man in her orbit at the moment had something to do with it, if women were in short supply in the struggling Appaloosa.

What intrigued me more than Allie herself was the very interesting way Virgil and Everett dealt with her, including Virgil taking Everett's word over Allie's at a key moment near the end. It got a nice chuckle from the audience.

APPALOOSA was filmed by Dean Semler.

Despite any quibbles, all in all I thought this was a very good film which I look forward to seeing again in the future.

I regretfully chose not to stay for the Q&A ssession with Robert Knott, as I was pretty tired after a very full 48 hours at the festival!

APPALOOSA is available in a low-priced widescreen DVD. It can also be rented for streaming from Amazon; there's a trailer at the Amazon link.


Blogger Jerry E said...

This is very interesting to me, Laura. I picked up the DVD in 2009 when we were in the U.S. even though I am very wary of newer westerns and only got around to watching it about 2 weeks ago! Like you though, I was very pleasantly surprised - I found it a generally fine work.
Of course, Ed Harris likes the genre, having filmed a version of 'RIDERS OF THE PURPLE SAGE' a few years ago. Also, Robert Knott, who has written lovingly of 'The Last Cowboy Heroes', a book about Audie Murphy, Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott. He then went on to write a full book devoted to the life and films of Scott. Both are much recommended.
I really enjoyed the relationship played out between the two men in this film, being especially impressed with Mortensson.

12:29 AM  
Blogger Jerry E said...

I see that another of our favourite actresses, Maureen O'Hara, has died. Although she was the grand age of 95 it is still sad news.

2:14 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Jerry, I have those Robert Knott books and didn't realize it was the same person who worked on this movie! Thanks for that great info.

Was very sorry to hear of Maureen O'Hara's passing, although she had a wonderful long life. I hope to pay tribute to her soon as I continue to catch up after my weekend out of town.

Best wishes,

8:05 PM  

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