Appaloosa

Robert B. Parker has been publishing novels for 35 years, and yet only one has made it to the big screen. The tough but gallant detective Spenser, of course, is Parker’s best-known creation, and Robert Urich got a three-year TV gig out of it; Tom Selleck has appeared in five-and-counting TV movies as Parker’s Jesse Stone; and Helen Hunt got Parker to create Sunny Randall for her to play in a movie series, which never materialized. So Appaloosa, the first in Parker’s Everett Hitch trilogy¹ of westerns, turned out to be Parker’s first story to see the light of a projector. He should be happy; the movie is pretty much exactly the book writ large. Parker wrote it in short, plain-spoken chapters, and the film follows suit.

As Virgil Cole, a wandering keeper of the peace in the southwest of 1882, Ed Harris puckers his lips and squints his eyes and speaks in a level, unimpressed voice when challenged. Harris, who also directed and co-wrote the adaptation (with Robert Knott), wears black sepulchral coats and a black hat with the wide brim straight across his forehead; he looks a bit like William Walker, the freebooter he played in Alex Cox’s gonzo Walker (1987). Walker was a hyper-controlled man given to sudden spasms of violence, and Virgil is, too. Teased a little too much by a woman of his recent acquaintance — Allie French (Renee Zellweger) — Virgil works off his discomfiture on a harmless drunk, beating him senseless. Fortunately, Virgil’s right-hand man Everett (Viggo Mortensen in a taciturn yet highly charismatic performance) is around to watch over him. As Everett explains after the beating, when you hire Virgil, you hire his particular brand of crazy.

The wind-battered town of Appaloosa is under the thumb of Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons), a saturnine rancher who may be Parker’s nod to Stephen King’s omnipresent Randall Flagg. (In his younger Creepshow days, Ed Harris might’ve made a fine Stu Redman.) Bragg has already killed the marshal and two deputies; the town’s hapless politicos call in Virgil and Everett, granting Virgil absolute authority, which he more or less doesn’t abuse, other than the unwarranted beating. A lesser movie might have omitted Virgil’s meltdown — it doesn’t really move the plot forward — but Harris understands that it tells us a bit about Virgil, and it creates some dread later on, when Virgil really has something to be upset about.

Harris takes his time. Appaloosa is well-paced, finding a balance between the slowpoke rhythm of the Old West and the demands of no-frills storytelling. With the mighty Dean Semler (who shot Dances with Wolves) framing the wide compositions, the movie plumbs the gorgeously desolate landscapes for a strange mix of pictorial splendor and ghostly barrenness. When we first see Appaloosa from a distance, it looks like a sad cluster of wooden boxes out in the middle of God knows what. This is where people live, if it can be called that; and when Virgil and Allie become sweet on each other, and she starts planning for the house they’ll share in town, Everett holds his tongue but almost visibly wonders what the hell kind of life Virgil expects to lead here.

The movie has caught some static because, on the surface, it posits tension between the Virgil/Everett bromance and the Virgil/Allie domesticity. Walter Chaw, in his typically impatient review at Film Freak Central, caricatured the dynamic as “bros before hos.” But Allie isn’t a ho — she’s a frightened young woman in a time and place that haven’t much use or respect for women, and, as unenlightened as anyone else in 1882, she’s looking for a strong man to protect her. Virgil has been riding for years, putting down bad men and moving on, and we sense he’s ready to put down roots somewhere; the younger Everett isn’t quite ready yet, and in the denouement he carries out a plan that he’s probably been nursing all along. It’s time for Virgil to retire and for someone else to carry a gun.

There’s considerable pleasure in Appaloosa‘s respect for the undramatic. It doesn’t go where you’d expect, and the gunfights, with their flat firecracker sound, are over almost as soon as they start. Robert B. Parker has always had a gift for understatement, fleshing out male friendships without strain and telling stories about stoic heroism without too much macho bushwah. Parker’s gumshoe tales are obviously influenced by Hammett and Chandler; after Gunman’s Rhapsody, Parker’s pass at the Tombstone legend, he created Virgil and Everett and seemed to sidle into the realm of Louis L’Amour and Elmer Kenton. They’re solid stories before they’re anything else, with depth and subtext you can take or leave, and Harris brings it all to the film intact.

There used to be a time when making a western was the most commercial and surefire studio pleaser a filmmaker could muster. These days, anyone foolhardy enough to want to helm a horse opera faces studio hesitance and audience apathy. Every so often, somebody tries one anyway. Appaloosa, eschewing cheap thrills and attentive to character nuance, looks like an art film now. Five or six decades ago it would’ve been the stuff of a John Ford or Anthony Mann money-printer. Times do change.

¹Actually a quartet; the late Parker’s fourth book in what might’ve been an ongoing series, Blue-Eyed Devil, will be published posthumously in May 2010.

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