US, 2008, 115 minutes, Colour.
Ed Harris, Vigo Mortensen, Renee Zelwegger, Jeremy Irons, Lance Henrickson, Timothy Spall, James Gamon, Tom Bower.
Directed by Ed Harris.
There have not been many big westerns in recent years. Kevin Costner made Open Range and there was the remake of 3:10 to Yuma. Ed Harris has decided to put a great deal of effort into co-writing, producing, performing and directing this new western. (He sings the song during the final credits which he also co-wrote!)
This is a classic western, a return to immersing the audience in a particular place and a particular time with its own ethos and its own morality. It is not looking at the frontiers and the 19th century west from a 21st century point of view. We are in Appaloosa, New Mexico, 1882, a period of transition. A small town has prospered through mining but the wealthy landowner is a self-made man with a dubious past, a man who takes the law into his own hands, as we see from the beginning, when he shoots a marshal and his assistants to avoid them arresting his ranch hands. The man is arrogant and confronts the law, even hires men to help him escape from custody and execution. He is played by Jeremy Irons, an actor one normally does not see in the west. He carries of his villainous role with conviction.
The film has a voiceover commentary from a former West Point officer turned independent lawman, Hitch (Viggo Mortensen). Hitch admires a stronger lawman, Virgil Cole (Ed Harris) and they hire themselves out to impose law and order on towns. The apprehensive town leaders (including Timothy Spall) welcome them.
This is not an action-packed western. It takes its time, drawing its characters, setting up the confrontations, making sure that the audience is well entrenched in this world. Cole is a steely-eyed, quick shooter who also ruminates, reads and, with the help of Hitch, wants to improve his very limited vocabulary. Hitch is the upright, very loyal deputy.
There is some disturbance in the town when a widow, Rene Zellwegger, arrives in town and Cole takes a shine to her. Hitch is less convinced.
With all of this established, the film can move into some action, including a court case presided over by the judge who is played by Ed Harris's father. There is a train hold-up, a desert pursuit, an encounter with Indians, some shootouts.
It is a compliment to Ed Harris to say that one can imagine Clint Eastwood making this kind of autumnal western, autumnal insofar as the 19th century west is coming to an end, and autumnal in the age of the protagonists. They are not young guns. And the superb photography is by Australian Dean Semler who won an Oscar for Dances with Wolves.
1.A 21st century western in the western film tradition? The few westerns in the recent decades? Using the classic form, characters, style?
2.The visuals of the west, the wide screen, the landscapes, mountains, the town and buildings? New Mexico 1882?
3.The score and its variety, strings, orchestration, the final song, sung by Ed Harris, the lyrics and the comment on the plot?
4.The voice-over by Hitch? His perspective? His friendship with Virgil Cole, explaining his background, keeping law and order, their activities? His comments on Ally? On the final events? His behaviour at the end, his final comments, into the sunset?
5.Virgil Cole as the focus, his upholding of the law, strong character, his age and experience, his years with Hitch, their arrival in the town, the meeting with the elders, writing the law, their taking over the town, the men signing the documents? The trouble in the bar, the confrontation and the shooting? Restoring order? The people of the town, the people in the bar, Tilda and her friendship? The three leaders? The bond between Cole and Hitch? Ability to shoot, administer justice? Observing? Cole and his reading, his increasing his vocabulary?
6.The character of Hitch: his West Point background, work in the army, confronting the Indians (and his later skills in meeting with the Indians, giving them the horse and their leaving)? The years with Cole, a quick shooter but, as Cole said, not so quick because of his feelings? In the bar, always on guard, with his eight-gauge? Bragg and his confrontation? The arrest of Bragg, in prison? Katie, her place in the town, his relationship with her, love? Their talking? Ally’s arrival, allowing Cole this friendship, talking things over with Cole? Ally’s advance on Hitch and his backing away, later explanation, Cole believing Hitch rather than Ally? The court sequences, on the train, the pursuit of Bragg and the Shelton brothers, seeing Ally naked, the confrontation with the brothers? His work with the Indians? Bragg’s pardon, the disappointment? The change in the town, the new hotel, his drinking at the bar, his contempt for Bragg? His final decision, giving in his badge, calling out Bragg, the confrontation and Bragg’s death? His asking Cole for the favour to let him be? Leaving? A man of integrity for the period?
7.Bragg, owning the ranch, his men, the confrontation with the marshal, not allowing the three men to be arrested, their background of murder and rape, his accusing the marshal of trespassing, shooting him and his men? The young man who served as witness? The speculation about Bragg’s background, the mines, robberies? His confronting people, his arrogance, his arrest? In prison, discussing Emerson with Cole? Paying the Sheltons and the sheriff? In court, his anger, testimony, the judge not believing him? His threats, the young witness being advised by the judge to ride away and not stop? On the train, the escape? The journey with the Sheltons, the Indians? The shootout and the wounding of Cole? His escape? His pardon from the president? Building the hotel, Ally and her playing the piano, going to his room, his arrogance with Hitch? His death?
8.Bragg’s men, lawless, the rape and murder, the confrontations of Cole, their backing down? The Sheltons, knowing Cole, in the pay of Bragg, the hold-up of the train, escaping with Ally, Ring(??) Shelton and the liaison with Ally, the final shootout and their deaths?
9.The sheriffs from neighbouring towns, having Bragg in custody, on the train? The judge, his managing of the case, condemning Bragg?
10.Ally, her arrival, only one dollar, Cole getting the biscuit for her? The hotel, playing the piano, Cole’s infatuation? Her background story, the lonely widow? Her attaching herself to Cole, wanting to be with leaders? The building of the house? The advance to Hitch? Her participation in the hold-up, the noose around her neck, with Ring, her being chastened? Her wanting to change, her inability? The plain talk from Cole, the friendship, her worry about Cole being wounded? Bragg’s hotel, Cole not going in, her playing the piano, going to his room? The end and its ambiguity? Cole wanting her but knowing she could leave him?
11.Katie, her place in the town, attachment to Hitch, her shrewd assessment of matters, especially of Ally?
12.The three men in the town, the law, justice, shopkeeping? Their fears, relying on Cole, the change when Bragg was pardoned? Going to his hotel?
13.Cole and Ally, love, the house, the train incident, his backing down, the pursuit, the Indians, the group, delivering Bragg, the shootout, his being wounded? Upset at the pardon? His not going to the hotel? His allowing Hitch to go? Staying with Ally?
14.The background of New Mexico, the frontier, building a new society, prosperity, law, violence and the gun? The transition from the old west to the modern west?