Paul Yim Paul Yim: (paulyim-deleteme[at]-deleteme-direman [dot] com) 2008-10-11 00:09:10

Appaloosa - Rank B

I'm afraid we're close to the end, my friends. The end of Westerns as a genre, that is. That's not to say that Appaloosa was such a terrible movie that it serves as Death Knell to the genre. Appaloosa is an adequate movie and a better-than-average representation of what the genre can offer. But "adequate" and "better-than-average" are hardly the saviors that the genre needs right now. Tombstone is the last good Western that I can remember and that was released in 1993. The sun is setting on the Old West and the last coyote is singing one final song at the moon, I reckon.

Making movies set in America's frontier, near the end of her 1st century, is an age-old tradition – about as old as filmmaking itself. This hardly comes as a surprise because people the world over have viewed the American Old West with great romance. Civilized people throughout Man's history have always been suckers for tales of daring-do in the face of wanton barbaric savagery. It's the story of ourselves, you see, subduing the wild world around us and building a legacy for our progeny. The "winning" of the West, as it were, is about survival of the species. This is why the Western exists as a genre in literature, fine art, photography, music, and film. It strips down all the bullshit that we've accumulated in school and polite society and reveals a raw, harsh reality about ourselves.

Appaloosa does exhibit some qualities that raise it above some of the more bromidic films being passed off as Westerns these days. For one thing, watching Viggo Mortensen ride shotgun to Ed Harris's single-minded gunslinger is what I would imagine seeing chocolate and peanut butter coming together for the first time to be like. One of the few places where Chemistry is an art and not a science is in the movies.

Somewhat more disappointing were the performances of Renee Zellweger and Lance Henriksen. Zellweger had the unfortunate position of being overused, and I had absolutely no sympathy for her character at movie's end. And chemistry? I was wholly unconvinced that her character could be so unabashedly conniving. And Henriksen's character was supposed to be built up as a gunslinger on par with (or even better than) Harris's character, Virgil Cole. I just didn't buy it.

Like all good Westerns, there's a gunfight/duel at the end that marks the ultimate climax of the movie – like a couple of high rollers at a hold 'em table, all-in on the river. But the climax in Appaloosa leaves something to be desired. This final duel – this last stand for good/evil/justice/your woman – has to have a certain kind of gravitas like no other scene in the movie, so the antagonist has to loom very large. I'm thinking of characters like Johnny Ringo, Little Bill Daggett, and Liberty Valance. By the end of Appaloosa Jeremy Irons's character, Randall Bragg, is virtually defanged.

I believe that the majority of responsibility has to rest on the shoulders of the director, editor, and writer. The writer must be the catalyst for setting off the imaginations of all the creative staff involved. She sets the tone, right from the get-go. The editor must be a master storyteller. He needs to understand the beats of the story and collate what the director gives him to create a pace and sense of tension in each individual scene. Do you know why most people are bored when watching wedding videos? Poor editing. The director must create scenes and convey the story through sequential images. The silent filmmakers were masters at this. All three offices failed with this film.

If Ed Harris had worn the director hat -and only the director hat- throughout this production, I think his shot selections would have been superior. By doing so, he would have also given the editor more to work with. It seems clear, from what I saw, that the editor shortchanged some scenes either because she didn't have the needed shots or because of time restraints. The end result was a stilted opening and insufficient tension to release for the gunfights. Oh and, by the way, Ed Harris not only directed this piece but he also co-produced, co-starred, and co-wrote as well. The dialogue didn't suffer very much (I suspect that Harris and company were rewriting as they were going along) but the story certainly did. The film had two endings and that's one too many.

If you love Westerns (as I do), rent this movie on Netflix when it becomes available. Otherwise, give your horse the night off and keep those spurs a hangin'.

The second link is the Blu-Ray version of the film.

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