Hollywood has been making Westerns for more years than there was a Wild West. Almost all of them take place in the years between the Civil War and the end of the 19th century–and “Appaloosa” continues the tradition.
Set in 1882 in the New Mexico territory, the story revolves around noble lawman Virgil Cole (Ed Harris) and his soft-spoken deputy Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen), who are hired to bring to justice a powerful, ruthless copper mine-owner, Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons), whose outlaws have been living off the people of the town of Appaloosa “like coyotes off a dead buffalo carcass.”
As Hitch says philosophically: “Life has a way of making the foreseeable future that which never happens–and the unforeseeable that which your life becomes.”
Adapted by Robert Knott and director/star/producer Ed Harris from Robert Parker’s novel, it’s unusual in its inclusion of a pivotal female character, the charming Allison French (Renee Zellweger), in what is, basically, a rugged, male bonding tale about courage, integrity and camaraderie. Through their banter and silences, actions and re-actions, the depth and breadth of Cole and Hitch’s long-term friendship is revealed.
Having worked together in “A History of Violence,” Viggo Mortensen and Ed Harris have mastered the art of subtle communication, amplifying the believability of their relationship which is tested by the distraction presented by the fashionable, piano-playing widow who arrives at the Boston House Hotel and Saloon with a dollar in her pocket and a story to tell.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Appaloosa” is an authentic 8, filled with cinematographer Dean Semler’s familiar Western iconography and production designer Waldemar Kalinwski’s carefully researched historical details, like Hitch’s cumbersome 8-gauge “hunt gun”/”market gun,” which is technically a shotgun not a rifle.