EmptyToronto International Film Festival
TORONTO — The Western may not be making a galloping comeback any time soon, but it won't be Ed Harris' fault.
If actor-director doesn't point the way to a modern approach to the genre in "Appaloosa," he has nonetheless made a fine dramatic comedy with fresh characters, witty dialogue and a keen interest in how relationships must have developed among frontier folks, tyrannical ranchers, no-nonsense lawmen and -- oh, yes -- the complicated women on that frontier. If Warner Bros. isn't careful, the studio, which inherited "Appaloosa" in the corporate dismantling of New Line, may have a hit on its hand. It will take marketing though since, after all, it is a Western.
The initial scenes feel familiar. Bragg (Jeremy Iron), a merciless rancher, guns down a sheriff and two deputies, plunging a small New Mexico town, circa 1882, into lawlessness. Town leaders (British actor Timothy Sprall among them giving yet another inimitable performance) beseech lawmen-for-hire, the tight-to-the-vest Virgil (Harris) and his longtime and most knowing partner Everett (Viggo Mortensen) to clean up their town. Virgil whips out a contract — here things start to diverge from the familiar — that gives him complete control of the town.
The arrival of a seemingly helpless widow, Allison French (Renée Zellweger), marks another departure from genre dictates. She has plenty of talents such as piano playing and cooking and she's no whore, yet let's just say she is not your usual Western heroine.
"How long have you been killing people for a living?" she innocently asks the new sheriff. The movie, adapted from a novel by Robert B. Parker (creator of "Spencer for Hire") by Harris and Robert Knott, is chockablock with dialogue that startles and amuses. Characters inadvertently reveal themselves through words. Emotions hide out in their words. Their wit is gun-powder dry and even Virgil works hard to improve his vocabulary although it's Everett who usually supplies the word he searches for.
The focal point here is the relationship between the two lawmen. This is no "Brokeback Mountain," mind you, but Virgil has been "husband" to Everett much longer than he has to Allison. "We're both with Virgil, not with each other," remarks Everett when Allison makes an ill-advised pass at him.
This is how men must rely on each other in the West, how they get a job done and survive. Virgil allows no place in his heart for emotions when it comes to that job. This, he notes sagely, is Everett's weakness: He can be ruled by emotion. You may never see that but his partner does.
One of the glories of "Appaloosa" is that you can't be certain where things are headed. And most surprises spring from character. The film really comes down to how the Western maverick gets tamed, how a Virgil settles down with an Allison, who is no blushing rose yet someone he develops feelings for that overwhelm his usual logic and focus.
It's difficult to say where the film's genius lies — in the sophisticated writing, the astute direction of veteran actors, in the cut-for-story editing (by Kathryn Himoff) or the restrained though sharp-eyed cinematography (by Dean Semler of "Dances With Wolves"). Since this is Harris' baby, much credit goes to him for letting the project take shape in an unhurried manner that allows nuance and humor to guide the story to safe harbor.
Production companies: Groundswell Productions, New Line Cinema.
Cast: Viggo Mortensen, Ed Harris, Renée Zellweger, Jeremy Irons, Timothy Spall, Lance Henriksen, James Gammon, Ariandra Gil.
Director: Ed Harris. Screenwriter: Robert Knott, Ed Harris.
Based on the novel by: Robert B. Parker.
Producers: Ed Harris, Robert Knott, Ginger Sledge.
Executive producers: Michael London, Cotty Chubb, Toby Emmerich, Sam Brown.
Director of photography: Dean Semler.
Production designer: Waldemar Kalinowski.
Music: Jeff Beal.
Costume designer: David C. Robinson.
Editor: Kathryn Himoff.
International sales: New Line International.
Rated R, 114 minutes.