September 9, 2008 / 7:16 AM / in 9 years

Ed Harris back in the saddle with witty Western

<p>"Appaloosa" director Ed Harris poses for a portrait during the 33rd Toronto International Film Festival September 5, 2008. REUTERS/Mark Blinch</p>

TORONTO (Hollywood Reporter) - The Western might not make a galloping comeback anytime soon, but it won’t be Ed Harris’ fault.

If the actor-director doesn’t point the way to a modern approach to the genre in “Appaloosa,” he nonetheless has made a fine dramatic comedy with fresh characters, witty dialogue and a keen interest in how relationships must have developed among frontier folks, tyrannical ranchers, no-nonsense lawmen and -- oh, yes -- complicated women on that frontier.

If Warner Bros. isn’t careful, the studio, which inherited “Appaloosa” in the corporate dismantling of New Line, might have a hit on its hands. It will take marketing, though, because, after all, it is a Western. The film opens September 19.

The initial scenes feel familiar. Bragg (Jeremy Irons), a merciless rancher, guns down a sheriff and two deputies, plunging a small New Mexico town, circa 1882, into lawlessness. Town leaders (British actor Timothy Spall, among them, giving yet another inimitable performance) beseech lawmen-for-hire, the tight-to-the-vest Virgil (Harris) and his longtime and most knowing partner Everett (Viggo Mortensen), to clean up their town. Virgil whips out a contract -- here, things start to diverge from the familiar -- that gives him control of the town.

The arrival of a seemingly helpless widow, Allison French (Renee Zellweger), marks another departure from genre dictates. She has plenty of talents, such as piano-playing and cooking, and she’s no whore -- but let’s just say she’s not your usual Western heroine.

“How long have you been killing people for a living?” she innocently asks the new sheriff. The movie, adapted by Harris and Robert Knott from a novel by Robert B. Parker (creator of the 1980s TV series “Spencer: For Hire”), is chockablock with dialogue that startles and amuses. Characters inadvertently reveal themselves through their words, and emotions hide out in those words. Their wit is gunpowder dry, and even Virgil works hard to improve his vocabulary -- though Everett usually supplies the words for which Virgil searches.

The focal point is the relationship between the two lawmen. This is no “Brokeback Mountain,” mind you, but Virgil has been “husband” to Everett much longer than he has been to Allison. “We’re both with Virgil, not with each other,” remarks Everett when Allison makes an ill-advised pass at him.

This is how men must rely on each other in the West, how they get a job done and survive. Virgil allows no place in his heart for emotions when it comes to that job. This, he notes sagely, is Everett’s weakness: He can be ruled by emotion. You might never see that, but his partner does.

One of the glories of “Appaloosa” is that you can’t be certain where things are headed. And most of the surprises spring from the characters. The film really comes down to how the Western maverick gets tamed, how Virgil settles down with Allison, who is no blushing rose but someone for whom he develops feelings that overwhelm his usual logic and focus.

It’s difficult to say where the film’s genius lies -- in the sophisticated writing, the astute direction of veteran actors, the cut-for-story editing (by Kathryn Himoff) or the restrained though sharp-eyed cinematography (by Dean Semler of “Dances With Wolves” fame). Because this is Harris’ baby, much credit goes to him for letting the project take shape in an unhurried manner that allows nuance and humor to guide the story to safe harbor.

Reuters/Hollywood Reporter

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