Once upon a time there were Westerns. Then one day, along came Clint Eastwood. Then another one day in 1992, he made the film Unforgiven. That movie seemed to put the lid on the coffin of the whole Western movie genre. It had the last word, and it said that word so well, any future Westerns would seem trite in comparison. Hollywood put out almost no westerns for over a decade after Unforgiven swept up 4 oscars, including Best Picture.
When he felt the dust had finally settled, Kevin Costner attempted to bring the form back into form with 2003’s Open Range, a relatively successful reboot for the genre in which we get reintroduced to the Western landscape in an almost elementary way (“This is a cowboy.” “This is his pardner” “These are malicious land barons.” “This is a gun fight”) In recent years, there have been a number of modern westerns that breathe a little of that dusty mythology into the air, from John Sayles’ Lone Star to Tommy Lee Jones’ The Three Burials of Milquiades Estrada to last year’s No Country for Old Men, (all three are stunning films). And then there was the successful, entertaining 3:10 to Yuma that seemed to dive into the genre headlong only because it was a remake of the classic 1957 film.
In light of recent “Western” history, Appaloosa seems to mosey into theaters as if nothing ever happened. It is a downright casual film starring Ed Harris and Viggo Mortensen, playing two partners who make a living upholding the law in the small-town west. Once the law is found to be sufficiently upheld in one town (or enough of the right people end up dead), they move on. The action of the film takes place in the small town of Appaloosa, where the two begin to toy with the possibility of setting down roots. Appaloosa is a paint-by-numbers Western that leaves pop-psychology at the curb and doesn’t come within rifle-shot of postmodernity. The men are men, thick as rough-hewn beams, and the women (all 2 of them) are… embarassingly shallow.
Mortensen and Harris are fascinating to watch, and listen to, especially when they are sitting on the front porch of the Marshal’s office talking at length. Their smiles come easily, and often. They are frank with one another. Their trust and friendship is both heartening to witness and hard to believe. We would expect there to be at least a little bit of tension between the two, about something, but there is not. One word hastily spoken turns immediately to apology and forgiveness. At another point in the story, the possibility of broken trust comes in the form of a wayward woman, played by Renee Zellweger, who puts their friendship to the test. Not much of a test, though. The possibility of betrayal is met with an unnatural forthrightness – the trust these two men have is so solid that it swallows this event that might have resulted in bitterness, or even a gunfight, in any other movie. It is a fault in this movie, I think, that the friendship of these two men is so unshakeable, but it is also what makes the story so endearing. There are no other relationships in the film that you can trust, and so a little trust goes a long way. A lot of trust, on the other hand, takes you even further than “a long way” which is encouraging, but maybe not as satisfying (from a storytelling point-of-view) as trust that is truly strained or broken and then mended again.