An Old West shootout at the Toronto film festival

Sat Sep 6, 2008 12:53pm EDT
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By Cameron French

TORONTO (Reuters) - Westerns have been around as long as moving pictures, and two movies at this week's Toronto film festival, including Ed Harris's "Appaloosa," show how the old standard has taken wildly different looks over a century.

From 1903's "The Great Train Robbery," westerns have traditionally painted a black-and-white picture of good versus bad, but Clint Eastwood's "Unforgiven" in 1992 updated -- or to some critics, redefined -- them by stripping away romance from a tale of a cold-blooded killer struggling to change his ways.

For actor-turned-filmmaker Harris, 57, who won acclaim with his 2000 directing debut "Pollock," the "revisionist" tag was far from his mind when tackling the genre he was raised on.

"I knew in my head when I was doing this that I didn't want to modernize it, I didn't want to make apologies for it. I didn't want it to be shot in a way that felt modern or new," Harris told Reuters.

In fact, he takes a straight-shooter's approach to adapting the Robert B. Parker novel about a pair of hired guns, Virgil Cole (Harris) and Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen), whose job is to protect a mining town from a powerful rancher.

Harris said he stepped back from the director's chair after "Pollock" to spend time with his daughter. But after reading the novel, he took an immediate liking to it, particularly the friendship between the hired guns.

Shot on a lean $20 million budget and a tight schedule, the film opens with a murder and ends with a shootout -- traditional plot points that bookend the story. In between, a woman (Renee Zellweger) threatens to come between the two men.

"Yeah, it's got action, and yes people get shot, and yes there's tension, but it's about human beings," said Harris.   Continued...

<p>'Appaloosa' cast members from L-R Jeremy Irons, Renee Zellweger, Viggo Mortensen and Ed Harris pose for photos during their news conference at the 33rd Toronto International Film Festival, September 5, 2008. REUTERS/ Mike Cassese</p>