Real friends - the ones that last a lifetime - can speak without words, trust without question, and finish each others sentences without consulting a thesaurus. After riding together as gun-slinging peacekeepers of the South-Western Frontier for over 12 years, two such friends are Virgil Cole (Ed Harris) and Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortenson). When the small town of Appaloosa acquires their services, the Marshall and his Deputy foresee a few gunshots, some scare tactics and an easy paycheck. Appaloosa, however, is instead the story of how two friends discover that, “The foreseeable is that which never happens, and the unforeseeable that which life becomes.” Standing in the way of tranquility in Appaloosa is Rancher Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons), who adheres to no laws and is wanted for murdering Jack Bell, the town’s previous Marshall and a friend of Virgil’s. Bragg and his gang also give the town no respect, stealing from storeowners and defacing their property. Hitch and Cole pride themselves on being men without feelings, but from the moment they meet Bragg, there’s an ominous foreboding that this time, it might get personal. Complicating matters is the arrival of Allie (Renee Zellweger), a widow with only a dollar to her name who immediately catches Virgil’s eye. Smitten like never before and facing perhaps the greatest adversary of his career, Mr. Cole fins himself in a world of trouble and the question then becomes, can Mr. Hitch and his eight-gauge shotgun save Virgil once again?
More a meditative study of friendship than an active Western shoot-em-up, Appaloosa follows a consciously meandering pace fused with efficient and meaningful scenes of violence. Harris calculates every second of brutality in his film, using each punch thrown and gun fired to move the story forward. The result is a very rewarding experience that beautifully brings to life 1880s America and its inhabitants. In this case, the inhabitants happen to be a group of fantastic actors, with the trio of Harris, Mortenson and Irons providing a strong base for their tale.
Although Irons is great as the slippery villain, the real strength of the film lies in the chemistry and truth in the relationship between Harris’ Virgil and Mortenson’s Everett. Initially, we’re merely told how great their friendship is as they ride toward Appaloosa, but after a few scenes together, we are truly shown how close these two men are. Their mutual respect for each other is of the highest caliber; they have the same sense of humor, they look at a situation and automatically think the same thing, they know exactly what not to say and when not to say it, and most of all, they have an unquestionable trust that holds their bond together. The fact that Cole and Hitch sitting on a porch drinking coffee and watching over their town in silence manages to perfectly convey their relationship is a true testament to how subtly great Harris and Mortenson are in their roles.
The one weakness of the film is the character of Allison French, whose complex nature simply isn’t properly adapted for the screen (the film is based on Robert B. Parker’s novel). Zellweger does what she can, but since the film focuses so much on the Cole/Hitch relationship, it doesn’t leave any room for Allie. At first glance, her character may seem malicious – she quite obviously desires a man who can offer her security, but she also genuinely cares for Cole. The film has difficulty juxtaposing her quest for love with her search for permanence, thus she comes off as somewhat shallow and empty, when she was meant to be much more. But the film wisely uses her as a secondary character, and as such this is a very minor complaint.
While Appaloosa may not be a film for everyone, it will certainly appeal to fans of the western genre and even those who simply enjoy a well told story – one that takes its time, savoring its characters, setting, and overall implications. In the end, it’s a very satisfying story about a friendship that, despite heavy tribulations, not only refuses to break down, but also strengthens itself and all other relationships around it. Appaloosa is the type of film that’ll causes most people to venture into the special features section, because A) it’s based on a book and B) it portrays such a historically rich period of American history. Unfortunately, although there are a few worthwhile and informative features included on this Blu-ray release, the overall package falls well short of what could’ve been. Its two redeeming qualities are the pristine hi-def transfer and immaculate Dolby TrueHD 5.1 surround track, both of which make the Blu-ray version far superior to its DVD counterpart.
The first and most in-depth feature is a commentary by Harris and co-screenwriter Robert Knott, which details how Harris read the book and it instantly became his pet project. It’s easy to see that Harris truly loves his project and worked very hard to get it made, but he’s not exactly the most expressive guy, so to be honest the commentary gets a little boring after a while. Still, if you crave more in-depth background on the film, its characters and composition, this is the best place to look.
Next up is “Bringing the Characters of Appaloosa to Life” which briefly discusses the characters and tells us more than once that everyone took a pay cut to act in the film. Interesting, but less than five minutes long. Then comes “Historic Accuracy of Appaloosa” which basically details the set and what they did to make sure they properly displayed an 1882 New Mexican town. Again, informative, but only about 3 minutes in length. Following this is “The Town of Appaloosa” which runs 3 more minutes and should’ve just been tacked on to the previous feature, as it covers the same material. Lastly, there’s “Dean Semler’s Return to the Western” which basically states that Semler’s been working with Digital film for the last five years, but returned to shoot Appaloosa on regular film because Ed Harris asked him to. I’d do whatever Ed Harris asked of me, too.
Overall, the features are very engaging and definitely worth a watch, but they are so fleeting that I can’t give the disc section a good rating. However, I do recommend that anyone rent Appaloosa, and for fans of the genre or Blu-ray owners, it’s a must own.
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