Sunday, February 01, 2009

"Appaloosa": Ed Harris directs, writes and stars in adaptation of Parker's western novel

Ed Harris has the reputation of playing forceful lawmen and sometimes forceful artists (an oxymoron), but it seems that just twice he has directed, and started in both films. (Tom Welling sometimes does that with “Smallville” episodes.) In 2000 he stormed on the screen as gonzo-like artist Jackson Pollock, but a complicated western like "Appaloosa" seems closer to his true calling. This was New Line’s major fall release, and it is base don the novel by Robert B. Parker.

Teachers of the craft (of screenwriting and filmmaking) make a lot of the notion that familiar elements of story and character grow out of very different circumstances and it is the filmmaker’s (and writer’s) job to get us to live that different life for two or so hours. That’s really the case here. The film has it’s beginning and it seems several “middle sections.”

But first, look at the notion of the law itself. Back in 1882, in New Mexico territory, a rancher Randal Bragg (Jeremy Irons) (any relation to Stephen King’s “Walkin’ Dude” character Randall Flagg in “The Stand”? -- we need a Trashcan Man, then) has killed three lawmen trying to summon him (before the opening credits). The town council hires “private” lawmen Virgil Cole (Ed Harris) and partner Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen) to be absolute rulers of this little model town (that’s how it looks from the distance – like a toy set). It’s interesting to ponder the libertarian idea of “private” rule, but it’s almost like that. Then there is the courtroom drama scene – a young employee (quite appealing) testifies against Bragg. The Judge has made up his mind, and advises the young man (after asking him if he owns a horse – a curious question) to ride and not look back. Harris indulges in some unusual direcotral discretion, showing an outdoor shot of the town while the testimony dialogue continues, and then later showing a mountain lion looking over the prisoner train, as if to pounce, or to foreshadow something that doesn't come. (Makes you wonder what it would be like to become a big cat, doesn't it?)

Then we have the death penalty train ride (recollections of the prisoner transport of James Mangold's “3:10 to Yuma”) which gets waylaid, quietly, with some interesting filmmaking that makes us think about model railroading. That other film, by the way, also reminds us of the days from everyday enemies in the old west: a horseback payroll robbery; and then remember the "train jacking" in Andrew Domink's "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" -- and we see that the newly expanding societies of the 19th Century had their Achilles heels just as we do.

The third vertex of the plot is, of course, a woman, a young widow Allison French (Renee Zellweger) who arrives, and comes between the two lawmen and figures into the film’s escape sequences and rewires the entire story. Is she a bit of “Nurse Betty” here? She plays these gentle pieces on out of tune pianos – in one scene, even a Hanon study. The film’s denouement is less striking than the entire setup.

Zellweger herself, in the DVD notes, remarks that this is a movie that shows how real people behave in frontier society in the 1880s. Harris remarks that it is a movie about male friendship, tested by a woman of course. The great tagline is "Feelings get you killed." How "psychological"!

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