Archive for the ‘western’ category

The Hateful Eight

January 3, 2016

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Quentin Tarantino’s justifiably cocky new film The Hateful Eight unfolds on a wide, wide canvas — enormously wide, epically wide. Yet most of the action plays out either inside a moving stagecoach or inside a tavern during a blizzard, and most of that action is talk — ruminations about who can be trusted, or disquisitions on such topics as the ignominious last moments of a hapless bounty hunter or the taste of stew relative to its maker. This stew certainly tastes like Tarantino cooked it, and viewers whose palates have adjusted to the loquacious maestro’s style will sigh with pleasure. The hellfire-in-mahogany images (shot in 70mm Ultra Panavision by Robert Richardson) and knife-edge sound design ground us in a stark reality that Tarantino eventually gleefully stomps on.

The people onscreen may be hateful but the movie, like all Tarantino’s films, is a work of love, a grindhouse-deluxe act of devotion. The timbre of a seasoned actor’s growl, the authoritative clunk of a gun hitting a wooden floor, the creak of a heavy boot on a stagecoach step — all of these elements get such lavish attention that The Hateful Eight could almost be a radio play. But the sounds consort beautifully with the Jackson Pollock blood spatters and the white hell of snow-torn Wyoming and the chafing left on a woman’s wrist by handcuffs. The woman, Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), is being taken to the town of Red Rock by bounty hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell), called “the Hangman” because he sees that all his prisoners dangle. Ruth wants to deliver Daisy alive, but he isn’t above bashing her with a gun butt or an elbow.

Misogynist? Not the movie — Tarantino hands the film to Jennifer Jason Leigh, who hungrily bites into the patented Tarantino Comeback Role, nasally drawing out the syllables of her trashy dialogue like a razor across a strop. Daisy is as much a cackling agent of chaos as the Joker was, and in a way the harsh treatment of her is anti-sexist. I was reminded of the mobster in Ghost Dog who shoots a female cop; when his partner blurts “You just shot a broad,” the mobster ripostes, “I shot a cop. They wanna be equal, I made her equal,” and so Daisy, who can take as well as mastermind hard punishment, is equal.

The same can’t be said for black people, not in the movie’s timeline some years after the Civil War, and not now, either, Tarantino is saying. Samuel L. Jackson’s Major Marquis Warren (probably a nod to western writer/director Charles Marquis Warren) is a former Union soldier turned bounty hunter, a complicated and perhaps not very noble man, someone possibly as deformed by the racism of his time as Jackson’s character Stephen was in Django Unchained. The “N-word” is, as in that prior racially charged Tarantino western, said maliciously or casually or merely descriptively, even by a Union veteran like John Ruth. The people in this movie aren’t yet over the Civil War. Tarantino doesn’t think we in the 21st century are, either.

Warren is brought into Ruth and Daisy’s sphere by the weather, and together Ruth and Warren must figure out who in Minnie’s Haberdashery — everyone’s stopover destination to ride the storm out — has conspired with Daisy to free her and leave however many corpses to harden in the snow. This aspect of the story has been likened to Agatha Christie, but it’s less a whodunit than a who’s-gonna-do-it. Among the many ironies is that the most innocent one in this situation may be a foul old Confederate general, although his past is far from innocent. Whose is? Nobody’s, says Tarantino. Yet The Hateful Eight, for all its heavy negativity, is not a nihilist work. There’s too much life in the execution, too much irrepressible affection for the snowy milieu, which, like Kurt Russell’s slyly distrustful performance and Ennio Morricone’s score, harks back to John Carpenter’s The Thing.

Jackson’s bitter gaiety in the face of white hypocrisy holds this long, strange trip together right up to the end, when heads are blown off, an arm hacked off, blood gushing and puddling on the floor. He’s eventually matched by the great character actor Walton Goggins, whose Chris Mannix claims he’s to be the new sheriff in Red Rock. We never find out for sure; perhaps Mannix is using his position to fuel his hatred the way Warren fuels his. The other actors — including Tim Roth, Demián Bichir, Bruce Dern, and Michael Madsen, who’s aging to look and sound like Nick Nolte — are more two-dimensional, and give somewhat one-note performances, but their characters are conceived as pieces on a chessboard. Ruth, Daisy, Warren and Mannix take turns believing they can win the game, but in the end two opposite numbers on either side of the racial divide are united over shared contempt for lies — life-saving ones as well as death-dealing ones. I don’t know if The Hateful Eight has much to offer the uninitiated, but for me the worst news about Tarantino’s gorgeous and gory “8th film” is that there are only, according to him, two more to go. I hope not.

The Great Silence

August 30, 2015

6bSilence (Jean-Louis Trintignant) is a mute bounty hunter in turn-of-the-century Utah. He has become, out of necessity, what he hates: bounty hunters killed Silence’s parents and slashed his throat. Attempting some sort of balance, Silence kills other bounty hunters, and likes to provoke them into trying to shoot first so that he can kill them legally. Some hero. And yet this is the hero we get in The Great Silence, a midnight-dark “spaghetti western” by the director Sergio Corbucci, perhaps best known for 1966’s Django. That film was filled with pain and gore and a dismal view of humanity, but at least it allowed its eponymous protagonist to triumph. The Great Silence is made of bleaker and deeper stuff. It’s been called “great” and “Corbucci’s masterpiece.” It just might be.

Corbucci liked to fill his westerns with discomfort and unpleasant weather. Django was dank and muddy and cold. The Great Silence was partly shot around the Dolomites, a cruelly stunning Italian mountain range, blanketed with snow at the time. The film’s recurring image is of a lone horse and rider trudging through deep snow. I’m not sure what seems more godforsaken, less hospitable to human survival — this chilly snowscape or the Monument Valley desert locations used in many American westerns. At times the icy locale has the look of a frozen hell or an ashy post-apocalyptic world, and if you ignore the details tying the story to 1898 it could easily be taken as a nightmarish future á la Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. (McCarthy’s Blood Meridian is nothing if not a nihilistic Corbucci western set in ghastly print.)

Silence’s major opponent is a cold-blooded killer known as Loco or Tigrero depending on which version of the film you’re watching (I prefer Tigrero). As played by Klaus Kinski, Tigrero isn’t really all that dark or evil; he is simply a creation of the world he lives in, and so he survives by his considerable wits and his willingness to kill. Those hoping for a juicy, manic Kinski performance, like the ones he always spat out for his frenemy Werner Herzog, may be disappointed — Tigrero scarcely bats an eye even when someone shoots his hat off his head. Blonde and blue-eyed, Tigrero can be taken as the Aryan menace whose shadow darkens the globe, but really I think Corbucci (who co-wrote the script with three others, including his brother Bruno) is after a more general complaint about capitalism and its ruthless logic in which men make money by spilling blood. In the words of the old Don in The Godfather Part III, “Finance is a gun. Politics is knowing when to pull the trigger.”

There’s something of a romantic subplot, when the widow Pauline (Vonetta McGee), whose husband has been killed by the bounty hunters, hires Silence to go after Tigrero. Eventually they fall into bed, itself a bit of a radical gesture in an era when Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was a huge deal, and that guilty-white-liberal classic wasn’t a tenth as erotic as Corbucci allows the interracial tryst here to be. So there is some mitigating soft and human beauty here, not just the harsh splendor of the icy mountains. It helps to give The Great Silence a bit of texture. Corbucci knows that nothing is gained by showing a world that’s completely, irredeemably repulsive and inhuman, because we also need some sense of what has been lost in this post-morality universe, what scraps of love or passion must be clung to in order to render life bearable.

We need that most of all because of the denouement Corbucci leads us to. The Great Silence is notorious (and heralded) for its defiantly unhappy ending. There is no Django here to save the day; there is only a mute gunfighter with a mangled right hand, and he tries to step up anyway, but his efforts don’t guarantee him success. They are met, you could say, with a great silence — the quietude of the indifferent land, the noiseless dark of the water under a frozen lake, the void of an absent God. The alternately traumatic and mournful score by the master Ennio Morricone seals the aesthetic: this is a world where men are either killers or corpses, or both, and the great silence swallows up prayer as well as gunfire.

The Lone Ranger

July 7, 2013

the_lone_rangerWell, it sure was a strange and subversive Fourth of July gift Disney decided to give the country with The Lone Ranger. The movie, which is actually a lot better than most critics would have you believe, inspires feelings ranging from disrespect to downright scorn for the following institutions: the U.S. military, the U.S. government, American capitalism, and the Lone Ranger himself (Armie Hammer), who starts out as a bumbling tenderfoot lawyer named John Reid. At one point, his savior Tonto (Johnny Depp) drags kemosabe through horse manure. That’s right, the Lone Ranger gets scat-bombed by noble Silver himself. I can picture, with some glee and schadenfreude, the apoplexy of such cultural guardians as Michael Medved at the notion of the House of Walt exposing millions of American children to such … such blasphemy!

Perhaps predictably, I had a fine time. The Lone Ranger stays up a bit past its bedtime at two hours and thirty minutes, though such blockbuster bloat is par for the course with director Gore Verbinski, who guided Depp through the first three Pirates of the Caribbean movies (not being a fan, I only saw the first). The film lurches forward with the weight of serious money, much of which is put to good use evoking the American West of 1869 on a scale you’re not likely to see again on the big screen any time soon. The budget is also on the screen in a clear-eyed and exhilarating climax involving two trains. Verbinski shoots action cleanly and unabashedly, the way Spielberg in his prime used to, and the way James Cameron still does, on the rare occasions these days that he can be bothered to do so.

There’s been some kerfuffle, some of it understandable, at the presumption of Johnny Depp playing Tonto instead of a Native American actor. Depp, who claims (like seemingly eight out of ten other Americans) Cherokee or Creek ancestry and was last year adopted into the Comanche Nation, has his heart in the right place, I think. If you can find the only film he directed, 1997’s The Brave, you will find a man very in tune with the bitterness and rage of indigenous Americans. And then there’s Jim Jarmusch’s acid western Dead Man, wherein Depp’s dying white man William Blake was befriended by a Native American and sent off to the other side in ceremonial raiments. At times, The Lone Ranger plays like William Blake’s final fever dream in the canoe carrying him across the river of ghosts, only here he imagines himself as the Native American who saves a white man. Depp’s Tonto is weird and unstable, driven mad by the genocidal treachery of white men. I would place Tonto as the missing link between William Blake and Raphael from The Brave. It’s not the goofball redface-Jack-Sparrow turn the ads lead you to expect; the performance has the derangement of pain in it.

The official plot motor has John Reid and Tonto teaming up to capture the evil Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner in a performance of supreme scurviness), but just nabbing him doesn’t get the job done; the tendrils of corruption that animate Butch reach deeply out from the “values” on which America was founded (along with a thick layer of non-white bones). You can’t just shoot this bad guy: there’s a whole government/nascent-corporate apparatus backing him up. Against this, Reid and Tonto are obliged to obscure their faces and charge forward. By the way, this is all related to us in flashback by the old and decrepit Tonto, as in Little Big Man, and the film tries on costumes from what must be dozens of other westerns. It’s an epic western amusement-park ride, though “amusement” isn’t quite the word — bemusement, maybe?

“The Noble Savage,” reads the condescendingly oxymoronic banner underneath the old, posing Tonto (it’s 1933), and The Lone Ranger puts the lie to both words while redefining most every white man on the screen as an ignoble savage. I don’t mean to harp so much on the political message of what’s essentially an escapist summer blow-out, but there is more under the hood here than the media wants to talk about (mostly the angle is how much it cost and how poorly it did over the holiday frame). There is probably a valid reading of the film as klutzy white-guilt self-congratulation: See, at least one white man joined forces with the insulted and injured against the behemoth of Manifest Destiny. Despite his best efforts, though, an entire Comanche tribe gets mowed down by America’s great new innovation, the Gatling gun. (The weapon is some five years anachronistic for 1869, but we’ll let it pass.) Since few ticket-buyers were up for this Fourth of July history lesson, there will be no Lone Ranger 2 in which Reid and Tonto continue their fight against injustice. For that, I gather, we must look to superhero franchises for the foreseeable future.

Django Unchained

December 30, 2012

django-unchained-jamie-foxxLike most of his other films, Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained feels like a summing-up, a resuscitation of forgotten subgenres, another thick volume of The Portable Quentin Tarantino — which, given the writer-director’s penchant for lengthy movies, isn’t quite portable. But that’s okay: the time always flies, and Tarantino gives us a lot of movie for our money. Django Unchained is another historical revenge epic on the order of Tarantino’s 2009 Inglourious Basterds, in which the insulted and injured get bloody satisfaction; in this case, the wronged party is Django (Jamie Foxx), a slave passing through antebellum Texas. Django encounters a bounty hunter, Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), and the two men become partners, Django assisting Schultz on various jobs until Schultz decides to help Django rescue his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) from a Mississippi plantation.

Previous Tarantino revengeploitation (Kill Bill, etc.) was set in made-up, stylized worlds, but this movie and Basterds unfold against real-life backdrops of cruelty (and deep collective shame), so Django Unchained has sparked considerable controversy. Some African-Americans take issue with a white filmmaker’s using slavery (not to mention “the n-word”) so freely in service of a popcorn movie. Others find it empowering, as their ancestors also found blaxploitation cathartic in the ’70s. I’ll just say that the movie is structured as a spaghetti-western Niebelungen, in which the dragons this Siegfried must slay are slave owners and all the hillbillies and Uncle Toms who enable them. Django’s journey brings him to Candyland, an elaborate plantation run by the noxiously self-satisfied Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). Hanging on his master Calvin’s every casually racist word like Gollum is house negro Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), who can tell straight away that Django and Schultz aren’t really there to buy “the right nigger” for mandingo fighting.

Trying to catch Broomhilda in a lie, Stephen asks her why he’s scaring her. “Because you’re scary,” she replies, and indeed he is; Jackson atones for many easy Samuel L. Jackson Auto-Pilot performances with a creepy, cobra-like menace. Tarantino has always been an actor’s director, evident here from so many people willing to drop in for tiny roles; at times the movie is an anthology of character actors from exploitation or TV. Foxx’s Django is iconic and stoic except where his beloved Broomhilda is concerned, while Waltz’s Schultz, familiar with violence up to a point, is gradually sickened by seeing firsthand the ruthless machinery of the slave economy. DiCaprio doesn’t overdo Candie’s sadism; in fact, in order to be sadistic you have to have some awareness that what you’re doing is wrong, and Candie, born into his position, sees nothing evil in it. It’s the water he’s always swum in. Someone like Stephen, who should see the evil but overlooks it out of expedience, is far more treacherous.

Starting with Kill Bill, Tarantino became a born-again action director, and the many shoot-outs here are staged with over-the-top gusto, with blood spurting and misting and puddling. When we’re supposed to enjoy the brutality, we do; when we’re not (say, when Candie unleashes dogs on an escaped slave), we don’t. Tarantino’s use of violence here seems fair and organic: If you profit from human misery, your death will be a joke to energize the audience. Tarantino’s great theme, hooking into his preoccupation with revenge sagas over the last decade, has always been “Actions have consequences.” When this is applied to America’s guilty past, Django Unchained comes to feel like an act of radicalism, which connects it to Tarantino’s obvious influences here, the sardonically political spaghetti westerns of Sergio Corbucci (The Great Silence and the original Django).

Other than showing off the first Django (Franco Nero) in a cameo, Tarantino’s Django shares no particular plot overlap with Corbucci’s, any more than his Inglourious Basterds cribbed its narrative from Enzo Castellari’s. The soundtrack is gratifyingly eclectic and defiantly anachronistic; Ennio Morricone and Jerry Goldsmith consort uneasily with Rick Ross and Jim Croce, and somehow it all works. As always, Tarantino is like a kid playing you his favorite albums and movie clips, but as he’s gotten older, with this and Basterds, he seems to have concluded that all his passion and enthusiasm should be put to use for grindhouse-history lessons — that is, history as seen through the filter of grindhouse, not the history of grindhouse, though it’s that too. The movie takes its time and stretches its legs and lets people reveal character through monologues. It also knows when to blow people sky-high for a laugh and when to step back in revulsion when other people who don’t deserve it are butchered. The tension between the two forms of violence may be the key to the movie’s controversy, but it also makes Django Unchained the season’s most vital filmmaking, bringing all of cinema’s manipulative possibilities to bear on a cracking good tale.

True Grit (2010)

December 19, 2010

John Wayne wasn’t much of an actor, but he had that American-eagle presence that stood him in good stead until the ’60s, when the eagle’s feathers began to molt. In 1969, with America’s indignity approaching its peak, Wayne made True Grit and played a fat, one-eyed drunk who could still get it together to be noble. The denuded eagle had been restored, at least temporarily. Cut to 2010: the eagle has not soared for quite some time, and politicians on both sides are plucking its feathers one by one. The time may indeed be right for another True Grit, another fat one-eyed drunk showing us that redemption is hard but not impossible. And this time, there’s a real actor involved.

Jeff Bridges steps into the muddy boots of Rooster Cogburn, a U.S. Marshal hired by fourteen-year-old Mattie Ross (sharp newcomer Hailie Steinfeld) to chase down the no-account thief who killed her father. Cogburn normally can’t be bothered to make his speech intelligible — most of it is disgruntled mumbling — but Bridges, a precise actor even when playing layabouts like Cogburn or the Dude, lets us hear the sentences that matter. Cogburn drinks all day and drags himself painfully out of sleep in the morning, but he snaps into cold proficiency when he has to.

True Grit has been adapted by Joel and Ethan Coen to hew closer to the tone of Charles Portis’ well-loved novel, which is told from the viewpoint of Mattie Ross. The baroquely formal language has been preserved, as has the rather eligiac epilogue: this time it’s Mattie who rides off into the sunset, not Cogburn. The obvious comparison is to the Coens’ Oscar-winning No Country for Old Men (that film’s desperate protagonist, Josh Brolin, here gets to play a slyly tongue-in-cheek Anton Chigurh figure), but I think it would make a better double feature with the Coens’ Fargo. In both, a plain-spoken female, innocent of sin but unafraid in the face of evil, pursues her quarry across grim expanses of snow. They’re both essentially comedies of persistence, weighed to the earth a little by the heaviness of violence.

The original True Grit got an M rating in 1969 (the equivalent of today’s PG-13), and the new version pushes the PG-13 envelope with chopped-off fingers, an assailant shot off his horse and pitching bloodily head-first into a big rock, and a nicely tense sequence involving a pit full of rattlesnakes. Still, the Coens have aimed for a holiday-season entertainment here, wrought with their usual fastidious style. (If cinematographer Roger Deakins, heretofore stupidly overlooked by the Academy for past gorgeous work, doesn’t win the Oscar next February for his work here, I’m sure I won’t be alone in throwing something at the TV.)

Why did the typically sardonic Coens want to make this film? A glance at the Portis novel yields a simple answer: Why wouldn’t they? It offers terrific set pieces, a great ear for dialogue, and an outsize hero, a sodden eagle burping on his horse and failing to shoot cornbread in air but firing true when it counts. It’s clear from such farces as Burn After Reading that the Coens don’t really believe in American exceptionalism. But perhaps they would like to. In the wide panoramic compositions of the filmmaking, the eagle soars again.

Jonah Hex

June 19, 2010

I’ve said this about a few other movies, but it especially applies here: Jonah Hex may be the most bizarre film to open on almost 3,000 screens in this country in a very long while. Here is an anti-hero, the titular Jonah Hex (Josh Brolin), an ex-Confederate soldier with a scar that wrenches his face into a permanent sneer. Visually — at least in the comic books that inspired the movie — Jonah is even more hardcore than Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name, who at least could choose to sneer. The movie adds some supernatural stuff not in the comics: Jonah can bring dead men back to life for a few minutes to interrogate them. Only the idiosyncratic Warner Brothers would give us a wide-release summer movie that turns out to be an acid western.

Jonah Hex flies by; it has to, at just eighty minutes, including end credits. The consensus among my critical brothers and sisters is that the result is a choppy mess, but as a spaghetti-western fan I hooked into the gnarled, cynical mood of the piece. Post-war, Jonah is a bounty hunter with no particular use for the north or the south. He betrayed his regiment, led by the psychotic Quentin Turnbull (John Malkovich), who murdered Jonah’s Indian wife and son in retaliation. Turnbull, it appears, faked his death and has been keeping busy wreaking havoc and developing some sort of proto-nuclear cannonballs. It’s 1876, so a lot of towns are celebrating the country’s first centennial and making themselves easy targets for Turnbull’s wrath.

In the comics, Jonah was a callous stranger, tough as jerky, who nonetheless had a soft spot for the oppressed. During the war, he reached a point where he couldn’t see the sense in risking his life so that some men could remain slaves. The movie touches lightly on this; the Crow Indians save Jonah’s life, and a black man provides Jonah with nifty new weapons. Jonah doesn’t have a lot of use for white men in general — which links the movie to some of the more political spaghetti westerns, like Sergio Corbucci’s Django. Jonah’s soft spot extends to a plucky saloon whore, Lilah (Megan Fox), perhaps the only woman who can look at him without flinching (she’s certainly the only woman in the movie with a speaking role, and the fake southern accent does Fox some good, takes her out of that breathy Valley Girl cadence she can easily fall into).

Brolin more or less puts across Jonah’s grudging heroism. When the movie goes for the usual summer kaboom, Brolin and everyone else get lost in it, but what mattered to me were the legitimately odd sequences in which Jonah talks to dead men or has trippy flashbacks or even hallucinations of himself fighting Turnbull. And the really painful revelation about Jonah’s scar isn’t that Turnbull inflicted it by branding his face — it’s that Jonah himself inflicted it trying to burn off the brand. Brolin wears all the pain heavily, but not so heavily as to weigh down the essential fun of watching a hard-ass gun down scoundrels in a western setting on the big screen. If you’ve seen a lot of that at the multiplex lately, I want to know which multiplex you’ve been going to. Whatever else it is or isn’t, Jonah Hex is utterly unique out there.

Appaloosa

September 19, 2008

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.