In Marshal Virgil Cole and deputy Everett Hitch's line of work, you shoot quick, you shoot clean, and you reload straightaway. No remorse. No looking back. No feelings. Feelings get you killed. Paired as rivals in "A History of Violence," Ed Harris (who also directs, produces and co-scripts) and Viggo Mortensen stand together as longtime friends and for-hire peacekeepers Cole and Hitch in this character-driven, bullet-hard Western based on Robert B. Parker's novel. As the woman who arrives in town with only a dollar and a keen sense of survival, Renee Zellweger adds feelings - things that can get you killed - to a quest to bring murderer Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons) to justice. Blood will spill in the town called Appaloosa.
Appaloosa is a Western by way of drama, not action. At its heart are two men, Virgil Cole (Ed Harris) and his sidekick Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen), who make their living as lawmen for hire. For a fee, they assume absolute power over your chaotic town and employ the law of the gun to impose order. As Virgil himself puts it, “I don’t kill people for a living. I enforce the law. Killing is sometimes a by-product.”
The iconic characters in classic Westerns have always been tough, laconic, unflappable men who shoot quick and shoot clean- and that’s how Virgil and Everett are. They are the perfect pair, Everett gladly backing up his partner’s gunfighting bravado, restraining his partner’s sometimes explosive temper, and even helping his partner find the correct words. Their trust in each other is unwavering and their solidarity as loyal as the rising of the sun.
And what better actors to play Virgil and Everett than Ed Harris and Viggo Mortensen indeed- their second collaboration after the critically acclaimed David Cronenberg film A History of Violence, the pair demonstrate a chemistry with each other that beautifully captures the understated harmony between Virgil and Everett. Both Ed Harris and Viggo Mortensen have always been minimalist but no less imposing actors, and their collaboration here lends great gravitas to their characters.
But no Western would be complete without a woman in the picture and that’s where Mrs Allison French (Renee Zellweger) comes in. She breezes into the town of Appaloosa after her husband’s death, though admittedly she’s not that grief-stricken. So beguiling are her charms that Virgil decides to settle down with her, buying a house at the end of Appaloosa’s main street and taking an interest in domestic affairs.
Don’t be too quick to write her off as just another demure, feminine character just yet- she’s quite the firecracker, as Everett no doubt finds out one day when he visits the yet-unfinished house and Allison makes advances on him. Yes, she’s definitely comes to prove, as the story evolves, that she’s more than just the archetypal romantic angle in this Western. Of course, there’s also the baddie, a murderous rancher Bragg, played with evil panache by Jeremy Irons, who is the reason for Virgil and Everett’s latest employment.
Ed Harris has been developing this passion project of his for many years now, and it clearly shows in his multiple roles as director, co-writer and producer. He certainly has a keen eye for what makes those classic Westerns tick. Here he infuses many of those elements into an impressive example of the genre, and thanks to veteran cinematographer Dean Semler, this is also a very pretty picture.
Be warned though- if you’re looking for big scale action shoot-em-ups, you best be looking somewhere else. There are no big major action setpieces in this movie. Heck, even its climax goes by faster than you know it- “That’s cos the folks know how to shoot,” says Virgil. This is through and through a character-driven Western, a fine example of two heroes, Virgil and Everett, the heroes who live by their own code of morals. In a land of amorality, these are just the men you need.
SPECIAL FEATURES :
Commentary by director Ed Harris and screenwriter/ producer Robert Knott: Ed Harris is quite like the character he plays in the movie- laconic and low-key. An interesting commentary in parts at least but Harris’ monotonous tone has a particular soporific effect.
Additional Scenes: A couple of deleted scenes with optional commentary by Ed Harris and Robert Knott.
Bringing the Characters of Appaloosa to Life: Director/co-screenwriter Ed Harris shares how he came to fall in love with the book and his determination to adapt it into a movie. The rest of the cast also talk about their various roles in the film.
Historic Accuracy of Appaloosa: The cast and crew discuss how they kept it real on the set of Appaloosa, from the design of the town, to the costumes on the set, to the fight sequences, right down to getting an actual coal train chug on the railroad for one of the pivotal scenes in the film.
The Town of Appaloosa: Great attention to detail by production designer Waldemar Kalinowski who talks about recreating the look and feel of the 1880s town of Appaloosa.
Dean Semler’s Return to the Western: Veteran cinematographer Dean Semler, who also lensed Kevin Costner’s epic Dances with Wolves, talks about returning to the Western genre and also filming on film (his last 4 movies were on HD cameras).
The visual transfer is excellent, complementing cinematographer Dean Semler’s brilliant lensing of the Wild West. The Dolby 5.1 audio also helps bring to life what action scenes there are in the movie.
by Gabriel Chong