Appaloosa (2008) held my interest for three reasons. First was the spectacular landscape in the background of many scenes. Director Ed Harris obviously heeded the films of John Ford. Second was the character Virgil Cole, played by Ed Harris, one half of the gun-slinging team hired by the power-structure of Appaloosa to restore law and order. Harris is an under-appreciated actor who in The Right Stuff and Pollock (which he also directed) and The Hours seemed capable of reinventing himself. In Appaloosa Virgil Cole is an upright sheriff who can’t countenance bad language or disrespectful talk about women and who has slept only with prostitutes and an Indian woman. He is an interesting character, if somewhat predictable, and Harris effectively brings him to life. Third was how in this generally mediocre film the three lead actors, Harris, Viggo Mortenson, and Renee Zellwegger, moved the story along. Although it never moved particularly well, it at least kept me awake. Jeremy Irons played the bad guy, a vicious cattle baron and businessman and nemesis of the other three. He is supposed to embody the evil developers and business opportunists who are taking over the West. My main interest in Irons was how he suppressed his British accent by talking as if his mouth were full of pebbles, much like Daniel Day Lewis in Gangs of New York. Zellwegger portrays a widow woman, Allison French, so uncertain of her welfare and survival that she sleeps with any man who shows promise of being able or willing to take care of her. Although her character was supposed perhaps to provide the film with a feminist angle, illustrating the limited means for survival available to an unmarried woman in the Old West, she is basically a wanton, amoral, and vacuous opportunist. She is, of course, who Virgil falls in love with, but not before he asks on their first meeting whether she is a whore.
None of the three main characters seems particularly intelligent. They go through the motions, responding to the challenges and opportunities that confront them. They reminded me of characters in a Frank Norris novel (McTeague came to mind). Moral rectitude drives Virgil. Amoral self-preservation drives Allison French. Viggo Mortensen’s character Everett Hitch never says much, and though he makes what is supposed to be the noble gesture of the film, you don’t really care. Randall Bragg, played by Jeremy Irons, does seem intelligent. But as the bad guy, it’s OK that he has the smarts.