Virgil Cole (Ed Harris) and Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen) make a good team. Virgil is no good with words but great with a gun, and Everett has a big vocabulary and an even bigger eight-gauge shotgun, which he carries everywhere he goes. The two have traveled the vast West for over a dozen years, freelance peacekeepers who assist sheriffs and marshals in countless frontier towns. And at the beginning of Appaloosa, the solid, vital Western that Harris also directed, Everett and Virgil have been brought to Appaloosa to face two kinds of enemies: the wealthy, brutal rancher Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons), and a beautiful woman who might break up their team for good
They meet Bragg first, after Virgil shoots two and kills of Bragg's henchmen for pissing on the local saloon's floor. Bragg throws down the gauntlet, with his thugs to back him up, but Everett effectively stares him down. Much more troublesome is Appaloosa's new organist, Allie (Renee Zellweger), who makes eyes at Virgil from the moment she steps off the train and is playing house with him in no time at all. Everett, caught in the middle and a little jealous that his longtime partner is settling down with a girl, is even more surprised when Allie puts the moves on him as well; "You're with Virgil; so am I," he tells her, and settles for occasional hookups with the local "easy woman" instead.
Though Virgil and Everett's efforts to bring Bragg to justice drive the poky plot, the real story is about their relationship, as the calculating Allie starts to tear it apart. Everett rightly recognizes Allie as a power seeker, a woman who takes up with the most powerful man in the area, and eventually Virgil recognizes it as well. But he's committed to the notion of settling down, as much s Everett knows the only life for him involves riding off into the sunset and onto the next adventure.
The lack of gunfights and the lackadaiscal plot can be trying at times, but there's so much pleasure in watching Everett and Virgil together, making wisecracks amongst themselves and brushing off even the most serious threats to their lives. Mortensen is funnier than we tend to remember, and he successfully pulls of Everett's jealousy about Virgil and Allie's relationship without pushing it into homoeroticism or farce. Harris is steely-eyed and flinty as Virgil, and convincing as cowboy unaccustomed to love. Irons make strange but compelling outlaw, but Zellweger is just a weak link; pinched and nervous, she gives us no insight into Allie's mercurial, amoral character.
Packed with horses, dusty boardwalks and lots of wide-brimmed hats, Appaloosa feels as well-worn as any of the original Westerns, and makes no attempt to either modernize itself or self-consciously point out its presence in the past. Characters talk and curse like normal people, and most of their problems are the same as ours-- Indian raids aside. Appaloosa doesn't do much on a psychological level, and its characters' reliance on violence is never questioned. Zellweger's character, with her questionable morals and loyalties, deserved better treatment, or at least more examination as what was likely a common phenomenon for women on the frontier.
But overall it's a satisfying journey that doesn't require too much examination, just an appreciation of the scenery and what it took to get by during this extraordinary period of American history. Harris won't successfully revive the Western as America's most beloved genre-- I'm not sure anything can do that-- but he may remind a few more skeptics how men in hats on horses can tell so many stories so well.