A Distracting Western Dust Up
By Colleen Dillon
Watching Appaloosa, I was pleased to find that my expectations for the movie were being adequately met.
After last year’s 3:10 to Yuma, I felt a spark of excitement at the thought that the Western genre was being revived. There, in James Mangold’s masterpiece, was the perfect formula for bringing modern viewers into the gritty stories of the Old West.
And Appaloosa, too, seemed to aptly fill its position as a prototype for this new movement. In the small title town, surrounded by vast expanses of sand, scrub brush, and cut-away cliffs, a classic struggle between veteran lawmen and greedy ranchers plays out in gunfights and carefully-worded threats.
Appaloosa was giving me everything I wanted in this type of movie: simplistically moral and immoral characters, sudden gunfire, quaint cowboy quips, and good acting.
Then Rene Zellweger appeared on screen.
Not only did the quality of the movie’s storyline skyrocket downward at this point, but my personal discomfort increased significantly. See, I don’t know if Rene Zellweger has had any sort of cosmetic surgery on her face, but she looks like she has. I don’t really think it is appropriate to cast someone who looks like she has been physically altered by the miracles of modern medicine in an otherwise historically accurate (as far as I can tell) cowboy movie. I don’t like her acting either.
So far the movie’s plot had centered around two peace officers trying to clean up the town of Appaloosa. Virgil Cole (Ed Harris) and Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen) are experienced gunmen who have taken up the business of hiring themselves out to towns in need of law enforcement. This is how they end up in Appaloosa. Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons), who owns a ranch outside of town, has reportedly killed a U.S. Marshall and Bragg’s ranch hands often wander into the otherwise peaceful Appaloosa to cause trouble. Cole and Hitch lay down a list of their own laws in the town and end up in repeated scuffles with Bragg and his men. I have great appreciation for simple and engaging storylines. Unfortunately, these qualities become lost at the introduction of Allison French (Rene Zellweger), a somewhat upper-class widow who has, for unclear reasons, traveled to Appaloosa to start a new life.
Mrs. French is uncharmingly naïve but still manages to attract the attention of Hitch and Cole (whom I had previously respected), who stare and chuckle either out of attraction or astonishment at her demeanor. Remember that this character is played by Renee Zellweger, who bobs around, blithely squinting, even in shadows, and pronounces her lines with her lips pushed out in a constant, forced mother-in-law smile. As Cole and Hitch bring Bragg to jail and await his trail, Mrs. French gains unnecessary screen time, creating new, irritating conflicts and detracting from the more relevant story involving Bragg. Finally, Cole and Hitch leave Appaloosa without Mrs. French but then she pops up again mere minutes later and causes Cole to give up Bragg as his prisoner.
At some later point in the movie, Cole discovers how fickle Mrs. French really is, but ultimately decides he doesn’t care and wants to be with her for trivial reasons like her habit of taking a bath every night. Around this time, I felt the film was beginning to drag and my mind wandered to the topic of unrealistic romance in movies.
I was angered by the fact that a far-fetched and unnecessary love story had brought the quality of Appaloosa down so low. The movie ends with a fairly satisfying series of events and a humorous final line but upon leaving the theater, my mind was still on my annoyance at Mrs. French.
Appaloosa has some strong points, like the acting of Ed Harris, Jeremy Irons, and especially Viggo Mortensen, who also sports an impressive moustache. That being said, I couldn’t help feeling like each event was a set-up for the next conflict in the movie. In the linear progression of the film, scenes occurred and were then dropped, too abruptly for my preferences. A young man testifies against Bragg though his life is threatened by doing so. He then gets on his horse and leaves town. He propels the movie to its next conflict but is otherwise irrelevant. Cole gets in an unprovoked fight with a man in a bar but the meaning of the fight and the significance of his temper are lost on me. Even Hitch’s final actions in the film seem more dramatic than I would have expected for his character.
Also, there is still, three days after seeing the movie, an overwhelming feeling I have that the entire film was tainted by the Mrs. French subplot.
I probably set my expectations too high for Appaloosa, hoping it could live up to something it was never intending to be. Simply judging by the crowd’s reaction at the theater, I think the average viewer would enjoy this movie and maybe find it humorous. The characters have more to offer than I’m allowing them to and if I were less hung up on unfulfilling love stories and Rene Zellweger, I’m sure I would have enjoyed their interplays more. I would never see this movie again but at the same time I wouldn’t want to deter anyone else from seeing it.
Appaloosa has worthwhile aspects that I hope another viewer could appreciate more fully.