For all of its bluster and good reviews, this is really a simple film.
This film is also a western. It also feels like a western, and has the dust, tumbleweeds and tobacco smoke to prove it. Every western cliche except a Gatling gun is displayed or referenced, and that is no exaggeration.
But then again, there is a lot that is left to talk about, and that is probably what the critics are lapping up.
APPALOOSA is quite simply the story of two manly men and the natural intimacy of their relationship. There is very little back story to explain this relationship. You have no way of knowing how long Virgil (Ed Harris) or Everett (Viggo Mortenson) have known each other. Ed Harris and Viggo Mortenson are acting HARD in this film, and the closeness is conveyed subtly. There are many moments when they are weighing in with each other on directions to proceed where all that is exchanged between them is a glance, and they act as if quite a bit was said verbally.
But the film is flawed on many, many levels. The most obvious is that of the chauvinistic, and we will get into that in a bit.
The film starts with a character named Bragg (Jeremy Irons) shooting a Marshall and his two deputies to death in cold blood. Bragg does this in front of all of his yes-men, and the plot is officially in place.
Virgil and Everett then come to town as guns for hire. They take the vacant Marshall and deputy opening and proceed to put bullets into people until they jail and secure a court date for Bragg.
There is a different problem that these two men have to work through though, and that is the person of Allison French (Renee Zellweger). Allison has shown up in Appaloosa with a dollar in her pocket and a coquettish look in her eye. Virgil is soon head over heels for this woman...but there is something about her, something wrong.
It is still hard to determine if it is Zellweger's acting or the flawed character she portrays, but every time Allison is onscreen, the mood is uncomfortable. Ed Harris in his direction of the film proceeds to hammer the viewer over the head with a lingering shot of a cougar at a crucial moment to let us know what kind of a Judas Allison really is.
It must be said that Ed Harris has been trying for years to ascend to the level of badass, and he has finally arrived. The alpha male moment where he stares down the posse of men outside of his jail and tells them who he will shoot first, second and third is powerful. He pushes his will forward, and the posse doesn't free Bragg which is what they came for. This is reminiscent of the same sort of chutzpah that Gregory Peck's Atticus Finch demonstrated in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, but with the teeth of a man who will take on the entire crowd, rather than stoically block the way.
Ed Harris' grizzled face, and Viggo's ridiculous facial hair become templates of the only real reason available in this film. They both speak little, but the words that they speak cut right through to the essence of the film. These are men who have seen it all, and know how to handle anything that comes their way. They know how to handle anything except a sophisticated headgame spun by a woman like Allison. While explaining to Everett how he is compromised as a gunfighter, Virgil says that "feelings get you killed," referencing a level of compromise in his own life that he is apparently unaware of. The feelings-free life that Virgil aspires to is the life that Everett appears to live. But, Everett isn't completely above his feelings either, and this brings about the death of the relationship.
The plot is basic and the camera lingers too long at points, pushing this film to a point where it is uncomfortably longwinded. Some of the scenery seems to be captured simply to be captured, rather than framed as a picture. Plotwise, it is a given that Irons' Bragg is sentenced to death, and of course he weasels out of it. On the sexist tip, the women in this film are clamoring for men to lead them, and have little power outside of their own sexuality. This film is a bleak yet weak capture of compromise, lies and whoring. The strength is in the relationship between Everett and Virgil, and this too, is tainted by the same three issues.
The relationship that Everett and Virgil have is a powerful one, and it is tested beyond normal boundaries. These two men demonstrate that in some ways, a woman cannot come between them, and in other ways she can.
Jeremy Irons plays sleaze the way he has for the bulk of his career. You want to see him take a bullet in his smug face. You want to see his manhood taken from him, and when your moment comes, it falls short. Lance Henriksen plays a co-starring role as a different gun for hire and does his part well. When the bullets fly, it is percussive and quick. This isn't a drawn out western with lots and lots of reloading. The players know how to shoot, and the bodies get dropped pronto. In some ways, this western feels different because of the conservation of ammo. There isn't a lack of tension however, the film has a undercurrent of potential brutality at all moments. Virgil is defined early on as a hothead, and the moment to see that hotheadedness put to use at a later point in the film is horribly wasted. No actor in this film is just dialing it in, but then again, they are all given too little to work with.
Another complaint is the rating of the film. This is the lightest R-Rated film I have seen in years. An extra f-bomb was awkwardly thrown into the script to secure this rating; this film is definitely a soft PG-13. Bullets don't WILD BUNCH through victims. There is a lack of the modern western splatter that we have all become accustomed to.
The simplicity of the plot is where this film stumbles. Another rewrite, and this could have been something to contend with a film like the UNFORGIVEN. Where it stands though, this is merely a film that is about a half a head taller than the rest of the films in the theatre today.