In an age when cinematic blockbusters rule in all their special-effect laden glory, one could be forgiven for thinking that the venerable western would have gone the way of the coal-fired locomotive and vanished from the cultural landscape, however you’d be wrong, and we’re all richer because of it.
Appaloosa marks Hollywood’s latest foray into oater territory, telling the story of lawman Virgil Cole (Harris) and his shotgun toting deputy Everett Hitch (Mortensen), two hired guns enlisted as marshalls by the town of Appaloosa, New Mexico, in order to free the hamlet from the grip of the murderous cattle baron Randall Bragg (Irons). Working from a screenplay Harris co-wrote with Robert Knott and based upon the 2005 novel by Robert Parker, Appaloosa layers its formulaic plot with rich character detail and clever dialogue in the interplay between Cole and Hitch, and Allison French (Zellweger), the woman who threatens to come between them.
With a running time of close to two hours, there are moments when the story seems to meander in the long gaps between gunplay; however, it never quite manages to lose its grip on the audience thanks to its exploration of the bond of friendship between the grizzled and world-weary Cole and Hitch, two men not comfortable discussing or exploring their feelings. In an unusual departure from saddle-saga convention, Harris peppers the script with clever, often humorous dialogue as the two men wrestle with the unfamiliar emotions of love, fear of dying, their prowess and limitations with firearms, and the reconciliation of love and betrayal. While it’s true such stuff is not your conventional cowboy material, Appaloosa manages to pull it all together without making the duo come off as latter day metrosexuals. The end result is a story with two of the most endearing and interesting characters since the days when The Duke commanded the big screen.