When I first noticed the poster for the new western film Appaloosa, I thought it had Clint Eastwood on it. Then I looked closer and saw that it was only Ed Harris. "Only" Ed Harris? He led the cast of the movie. He co-wrote the movie. He produced the movie. He directed the movie. Heck, he cast his father in it - Bob Harris, whose handful of acting credits have all been in projects featuring Ed Harris, and who here appears as an elderly judge. Ed Harris left his stamp all over this film.
And ultimately, he makes good on his first-glance resemblance to Clint. For it is a tough, manly, atmospheric western. It creates a sense of vast space, and fills it with suspense and melancholy, enlivened by occasional explosions of violence. It puts its cast in a situation from which one knows they cannot escape without tragedy, and makes us watch the whole grim unfolding.
If I had to complain about one thing, however, it would be a vague feeling that the unfolding wasn't as grim as the situation promised. Did Harris fall so in love with his characters that he had to spare them a measure of suffering? He should worry more about us than them.
The situation presents itself when Jeremy Irons shoots a town marshall and two deputies off the backs of their horses. The unfolding begins when Ed Harris and Viggo Mortensen ride into the western town of Appaloosa. Longtime partners in the "peace-keeping business," as Mortensen's voice-over calls it, they have come at the request of the local aldermen (including Timothy Spall) to investigate the disappearance of their lawmen. Harris forces the aldermen to give him sweeping powers. Together with his 8-gauge-wielding deputy, he soon stares down Irons and his goons in what promises to be a highly sanguinary feud.
The tragic tableau seems set when an intriguingly well-groomed widow, played by Renée Zellweger, rides in on the train and sets herself up as the piano player in the hotel bar, breaking local precedent by being neither accompanied by a man nor a prostitute. Zellweger charms the socks off of Harris, and you squirm with the joy of anticipated anguish as flashes of jealousy between her and Mortensen flicker on the horizon. By the time Zellweger makes a pass at Mortensen, then throws him out when he spurns her, you're positively rubbing your hands together.
But Harris never lets the expected tragedies boil over. He leaves the Irons affair to simmer while he heats up the Zellweger one. When he swaps back to the Irons plot-line, it seems to have mellowed. A young cowboy turns state's evidence against Irons. Harris and Mortensen sneak into Irons's ranch and cut him out without spilling a drop of blood. In spite of all the tension leading up to the trial, the witness lives to deliver his testimony and rides away, safe and sound, never to be seen again. Meanwhile, a new ingredient enters the stew: a pair of gun-for-hire brothers played by Lance Henriksen and Adam Nelson.
It doesn't come as much of a surprise when these brothers help Irons escape from his slow train to the gallows, taking Zellweger with them as a hostage. Nor, frankly, is it very surprising when Harris and Mortensen catch up with their quarry and find Zellweger fooling around with Henriksen. What is surprising, and sometimes disappointing, is how easily things seem to work out for Harris and Mortensen. Up to the gunfight that results when Henriksen and Nelson lead them into a trap, they seem to work things out too easily for tragic, western heroes. They capture Henriksen's party, Irons and all, without a shot being fired. They avoid having their throats cut by Indian raiders. And when Zellweger claims that Mortensen "put his hands on" her, and Mortensen flatly denies it, Harris simply believes Mortensen. By the time Harris and Henriksen's duel turns into an ambush, you're starting to feel more like you're watching a romantic comedy than a western tragedy.
But then the true shape of the arc comes clear. It's not an everybody-must-die, last-man-standing type of story. It's about how a wild, dangerous, nomadic lawman like Harris becomes tamed, de-fanged, and house-trained. How he begins to lose his power, together with his wanderlust, while his younger, still-wild partner Mortensen itches to move on. How his complex relationship with Zellweger and his position in Appaloosa teeter on the brink as a pardoned and newly-respectable Irons takes everything over. And how, after a grim, low-key buildup, Mortensen solves all these problems - at least temporarily - with a single bullet.
It may never be said that this movie was taut, gripping, or intense. It has its moments, but in the end it seems to be a portrait of a strong character when his powers have begun to slip away, and of a manly friendship that has started to be unmanned. The tragedy ends up being about the end of Mortensen's and Harris's partnership. And although Harris and Zellweger end up staying together in Appaloosa, the romance rides out of it at the end, accompanied by another low-energy voice-over by Mortensen. It isn't a thriller or an emotionally devastating movie. It is simply a neat - perhaps too neat - little story about a parting of the ways between two men who walked the thin line between law and outlaw.
A last murmur: Viggo Mortenson is terrific, but he should never be allowed to deliver a voice-over. As this film repeatedly demonstrates, his acting loses 82% of its charisma when you can't see the smolder in his eyes.