Film Reviews

APPALOOSA

By • Sep 30th, 2008 •

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Squinting Zellweger ruins it. I liked the hats.

APPALOOSA could have been a terrific Western but the co-producer, director, co-writer, and star failed at casting the pivotal female role. I’m not sure about the stated legal adage that the outcome of a trial is determined with selecting the jury, but with a movie, only when there is a serious miscasting can you tell that the adage, “casting is everything”, is a fact.

Let me explain further. It is 1882 and Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen) and Virgil Cole (Ed Harris) have been traveling around the West hiring themselves out to bring law and order to towns incapable of doing it. In the town of Appaloosa, they tell the fat, old, scared politicos that for a price, and a contract allowing Cole, designated as the City Sheriff, to be the sole purveyor of law and punishment, they will clean up the town of its number one troublemaker, Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons).

Bragg runs a 20-man gang and is being sought for killing three men, one of them a deputy. The town’s leaders agree to Cole’s terms and he sets up shop. Then the newly- widowed Allison French (Renée Zellweger) turns up with one dollar to her name and some piano playing skill. You have to be a tough broad to come to a new town not knowing anyone. French is not frontier-weary but a puckered-up, eye-squinting, prim and proper lady.

Within seconds of seeing Cole, Allison becomes enchanted with him. Cole has had, by his own admission, plenty of whores and one squaw woman, but he falls for Allison. Cole decides to build a house and live permanently with Allison in Appaloosa. Cole and Hitch may have traveled long and hard and spent many nights huddled together on the open range, but they have not formed any kind of homoerotic camaraderie. They may not even like each other. The killing partnership is over. Then Allison makes a play for Hitch.

Zellweger’s Allison is so unappealing that when she’s on screen, you hope a stray bullet hits her – it is after all the wild, lawless west – and Cole and Hitch would get down to business in bringing Bragg to justice.

Having shown no sign of what is to come, Zellweger’s Allison takes a strange turn and makes Cole look like a fool.

Harris and Mortensen are terrific together, again. Who can forget their diner confrontation in A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE? No doubt this is why Mortensen took the more laid-back, supporting role of Hitch. Harris has had a fantastic career and so many memorable roles, I was shocked when I recently saw COPYING BEETHOVEN (2006) and, while I was in Iquitos, Peru in July, I saw him in a truly bad Western, RIDERS OF THE PURPLE SAGE (1995). Thankfully, Harris has scraped the soliloquy. Long speeches have no place in movies.

As co-writer, director, and one of the three producers, Harris is to blame for casting Zellweger and giving her such a poorly-written role. Zellweger is miscast because she has no hard edge to show that her Allison will do anything to survive. Zellweger (I don’t care about her Academy Award) doesn’t have the acting depth to convey to the audience a complicated character with dimensions. Especially not one with a killer’s instinct.

As a Western, director Harris has done an admirable job and he does give balance to all his male characters. As a director, he likes them and it shows. Zellweger, I am certain of it, cannot be directed. Why didn’t Harris just cut away her role? If he was so concerned about a suggestion of a gay friendship between Cole and Hitch, he could have given Cole another squaw.

If APPALOOSA fails at the box office, it is Zellweger’s fault.

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