Friday, September 26, 2008

APPALOOSA - a great character piece marred by a blowsy broad

APPALOOSA is two movies spliced together. The first is a beautifully acted, patiently told, character piece set in the American West some time after the Civil War. Ed Harris and Viggo Mortensen play two peace-enforcers to hire. They find themselves in a small towm called Appaloosa, hired by the townsfolk to defend their businesses and their women against Jeremy Irons' lawless ranch-hands. It's a savage, unforgiving place. Irons' dessicated amoral rancher shoots sherriffs at will (and rather bizarrely, seems to be affecting an accent somewhat similar to Daniel Day-Lewis in THERE WILL BE BLOOD). The two peace enforcers inflict tyranny on the town in exchange for peace. Both men have a sort of languid, homespun charm, but Ed Harris' character in particular is prone to moments of range.

The charm of APPALOOSA is to show the quiet beats between the moments of violence and set-piece stand-offs. The two law-men have a comfortable relationship reminiscent of an old marriage, and Viggo Mortensen's character may be visiting the local whore, but he is evidently in love with Ed Harris' character in a way that may step over the line from hero-worship to homo-eroticism. I also love the fact that these very real, complex characters are situated in a perfectly authentic world. The little details in the production design are evocative - from the leather patch on Viggo's jacket where he rests his gun, to the way in which the law-men have tanned faces up to the line where their hats shade the top of their foreheads.

Unfortunately, this movie is marred by a serious mis-step of casting and direction with the pivotal role of Mrs Alison French. She's meant to be a conspicuously elegant, seductive woman who blows the two men off course and leaves them stumbling for words to describe her actions. Renee Zellwegger plays Mrs French in strokes and colours so broad that it looks like she's in a different movie from Ed Harris and Viggo Mortensen. It would be easy to criticise Zellwegger for these choices, and I do. She's not a great actress, but she IS a good actress, and if she had had any senstitivity to the rest of the cast, she would have modulated herself accordingly. However, I also have to lay some of the blame at the door of second-time director Ed Harris, who presumably didn't give her the right direction.

This is all a tremendous shame, because APPALOOSA is evidently a labour of love for Ed Harris, and he goes so far toward creating a classic modern Western only to have Zellwegger's character blotch the paper.

APPALOOSA played Toronto 2008 and is currently on release in the US, Singapore and UK. It goes on release next week in France and Norway and opens in Argentina on December 4th.

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