The best reason Westerns will never die is that actors love them too much. And why on earth wouldn't they?
There's a certain kind of acting you can only do in Westerns -- droll, ultra-laconic, moving from wry or ominous silence to stoic annoyance and, finally, to violent explosion. If brevity is the soul of wit, Westerns are bound to appeal to actors with more than their share of soulful wit.
That's why Ed Harris got such a high-toned bunch of fellow actors to make "Appaloosa" with him in the director's chair.
Think of "Appaloosa" as the anti-"Deadwood," the exact contemporary opposite of David Milch's lamented HBO series. In other words, "Appaloosa" is a well-acted minimalist Western where almost nothing is flamboyant, words are few and far between (sometimes comically so, as in the case of the hero's decidedly shaky grasp of them) and almost everything that happens is more a charismatic ceremony than a plot. You spend half of this movie as a celebrant in the First Church of Sagebrush Civilization.
Until we round the final turn, that is, where something quite acerbic and new happens with the character played by Renee Zellwegger. She plays Harris' love object, a woman of decidedly wavering loyalties and affections who requires more than her share of patience and hard-won wisdom from all the men she comes in contact with.
Where have you seen the rest of this plot before? Just about everywhere. Try these in Western film history: Edward Dmytryk's "Warlock" and Clint Eastwood's "High Plains Drifter," to name two of the more criminally underrated movies about itinerant gunfighting lawmen hired to clean up a small town and leaving a lot of brutalization and destruction in their wake.
In "Appaloosa," Harris and Viggo Mortensen are a couple of mercenary marshals who come to the town of Appaloosa to establish law and order and, along the way, find the killer of the last sheriff, who was blown off his horse from a few feet away with scarcely a "goodbye."
The killer was the town bad guy, played with incongruous articulateness, much wit and not a superfluous ounce of body fat by Jeremy Irons. (All male members of this cast seem to set modern records for leanness. At the Toronto International Film Festival, I passed a mysteriously perturbed Viggo Mortensen waiting for an elevator on my floor, and he looked like a man who'd never had a milkshake in his life -- or even thought about one.)
As deputy Viggo tells the town bigwigs, he and his fast-drawing boss (Harris) are going to "button up the town tighter than a nun's corset" and "we need a lot of laws to make it legal."
We're talking about a really tough town here. Etiquette is non-existent. Drunks at the local bar simply unbutton and relieve themselves where they stand. You really need a quick-draw marshal and a deputy with an eight-gauge shotgun always at the ready.
Zellwegger's arrival perks up the Marshal's (Harris') interest considerably. When they meet, she asks: "Tell me Mr. Cole, how long have you been killing people for a living?"
It's the love story, frankly, involving this errant woman who always makes an amorous beeline for male power in any and all situations, that finally makes "Appaloosa" as worthy as it is.
Not that it isn't subtly detailed all the way through (note the way Mortensen's face is deeply suntanned but only to the hatline in the middle of his forehead). I just wish that everyone's necessarily improvised adjustments to the heroine's morality had taken up more of the film. They are, by far, the freshest part of it.
Nevertheless, it's a very shapely, droll and good-looking bit of Western storytelling.
We're not seeing a lot of Westerns these days, true, but when we do see them, they tend to be choice.
3 1/2 stars (Out of 4)
STARRING: Ed Harris, Viggo Mortensen, Renee Zellwegger and Jeremy Irons
DIRECTOR: Ed Harris
RUNNING TIME: 108 minutes
RATING: R for violence, language and very brief nudity.
THE LOWDOWN: All-star Western in which a couple of itinerant lawmen clean up a small town, find women and a date with destiny in the process.