Appaloosa (2008)

Summary: Ed Harris’ sophomore effort as director is an epic oater. Part serious genre entrant, part button-pushing pastiche, it does everything a revisionist western should, and yet is still somehow disappointing.

Review: He may be an old hand as an actor, but when it comes to directing, Ed Harris is still a relative beginner. Following on from his debut with artist’s biopic Pollock (2000), the veteran filmmaker helms, co-writes, produces and stars in Appaloosa – and yes, that is his voice singing the song over the closing credits too.

After the marshal of Appaloosa is murdered by a local rancher (Jeremy Irons), two hired guns in the ‘peacekeeping business’ (Viggo Mortensen and Harris himself) arrive to clean up the town, only to have their allegiances split by an inconstant widow (Renée Zellweger) and a shifting political landscape.

Appaloosa is clearly a western in the revisionist mould. The gunfights are understated and bathetic. There is something of Brokeback Mountain about the bond between the self-appointed lawmen. The cowboy politics of George W. Bush are evoked by the way that Harris’ verbally challenged, morally simplistic ‘lawman’ arrogates executive powers and carefully immunises himself and his cronies against future prosecution. The old oater cliché about a man having to do what a man’s gotta do is here slyly adapted to a female character – while even the convention of the hero riding off into the sunset is ironised through overstatement.

With its top-notch cast and Dean Semler’s stunning camerawork (at times mimicking the photographic styles of the late nineteenth century), Appaloosa aims very high – and yet it somehow still falls flat. It is as though Harris could not decide whether he was making the classic western of his boyhood dreams, or merely a pastiche of it – and the result, falling somewhere between the two, ends up being neither here nor there.

© Anton Bitel