APPALOOSA is a pet project of actor Sam Harris and as pet projects of actors go, this one goes pretty well. The APPALOOSA of the title isn’t a horse, as you might expect, it’s a town. And this isn’t just a vanity project, it’s a real movie. It’s a character driven, ambiguous, suspenseful western which makes it three times unusual (four if you consider Westerns unusual in themselves nowadays, which I do). It has all the trappings of John Wayne westerns with good guys and bad guys, gunfights, horses, landscapes, and dripping in machismo. But in the end it’s driven by the characters and the dialogue, which adds a fifth and sixth unusual thing. Nowadays if you can find six unusual things in a movie then you should see it.
You should see this.
The veracity of the movie is wonderful. Viggo Mortenson wears the kind of facial hair that would have been verboten in earlier westerns. (There is one story of Gary Cooper showing up for the first day of shooting of HIGH NOON with a period mustache and being told that modern audiences wouldn’t accept him with such ridiculous facial hair so he had to shave it.) The eight-gauge shotgun doesn’t exist anymore but it plays such an important role that it’s almost another character. Everything from costuming to the saddles they use is authentic. That kind of veracity gives the movie a real grounding in reality that serves the story well and never pulls the viewer out of the story.
Hand in hand with that is another thing that sets APPALOOSA apart from so many modern westerns- it isn’t revisionist. It doesn’t plaster over its ideas with modern sensibilities. As a result, it is able to tackle some issues in a way only SF is usually able to. Women are considered different than men; strength is cherished; violence is unapologetic. It’s the story of hard men doing hard things in a hard land. Yet in spite of a lack of post-modernist angst, the story and characters are complex and nuanced. The tone is set in the first couple of scenes. Before the title has even rolled there is the first killing, in cold blood, without a moment’s hesitation. Then we get almost 10 minutes of the story being set up before the second, third and forth killings. Both times the violence is sudden. One minute two people are talking, the next a gun has been fired and someone is dead. This aesthetic carries over from the action to the dialogue. There are long periods when nothing is said between the two leads. When the dialogue comes it is short and to the point.
Make no mistake, this is a buddy picture. But not in the common mold of two smirking goofballs trying to one up each other with silly one-liners while vying for the same woman as if she were nothing more than the faux-Rolex in a mechanical claw machine. These are serious men who are professional killers and the movie never lets you forget that or cartoons the violence for easier consumption. Here the silences tell you as much about the characters played by Ed Harris and Viggo Mortensen as the dialogue does. When they do talk, they talk like men- they say what they have to say and move on. Despite this brevity, you feel that you get to know these men and their affection for each other far better than you do in most “buddy” movies. And there is humor, but it’s genuine humor that grows out of character and situation. Nobody ever tells a “joke”, but there is a gentle ribbing inherent in the dialogue that is the kind of humor serious men use to bond. In one scene, after a gunfight between six men which in a lesser movie might have taken 20 minutes of screen time but here is over with in less than a half minute, the two leads are lying on the ground. Mortensen’s character, Everett Hitch, says, “That didn’t take long.” To which Harris’ Virgil Cole replies matter-of-factly, “Everybody could shoot.” Two lines of dialogue that cap the scene, explain it, release the tension, and make you laugh while also making you realize that most of the western gunfights you’ve ever seen in movies are overblown and tiring in comparison.
But don’t think that because the movie isn’t pretentious and overly modernized it doesn’t have anything to say. There are themes of the arbitrariness of legal justice, the effect of politics (both governmental and sexual), the penalties inherent in real love, and the cowardice of the business world when faced with a choice between principle and greed. But the main theme that anchors the story is the relationship of the two main characters. Men devoted to each other both professionally and personally. Who take the phrase “bros before hoes” out of the drunken fratboy lexicon and bring it back to the roots it must have come from. APALOOSA is a western that gives you all the set pieces you expect but turns your expectations upside-down by being more involved with character than action, more dedicated to truth than excitement.
So the script and acting are superb, but this is, after all, a western. And one of the expectations audiences have of the modern western is to be shown some beautiful photography (ironically). In addition to the usual challenges of shooting on location, having an actor-director is a special challenge for a Director of Photography. Since the director is in front of the camera it falls to the DP to be the ersatz director while filming commences. DANCES WITH WOLVES proved that Dean Semler was more than capable in this situation and here he shows that it wasn’t just a fluke. While this movie doesn’t have the kind of grandeur and outright beauty of DANCES, Semler’s keen eye and extraordinary ability to shoot incredible pictures of natural western locations makes the movie a visual treat. This wasn’t just a return to westerns for Semler, it was also a return to film. Like most DPs, Semler has been shooting on digital video of late. But for this film Harris’ decision was to shoot on, well, film. I can’t really tell how much effect it has on the look and feel of the film, but there is a sort of “old timey” western vibe to the whole thing that could be attributed to the widescreen anamorphic format as much as anything. In any case, there are numerous shots where both bright sunlight and dark shadow are in the same shot but the movie never hints at the difficulty of shooting such scenes. At least not in the Blu-Ray translation that I watched both on my front projection system and my 72” rear projector. Any shortcomings you find in the BD are probably a result of your home display technology rather than the film as shot or the transfer.
Like AUSTRALIA, this is a movie designed and shot to be seen on the widescreen. Few scenes show the kind of composition that was common in the 80s and 90s, where you could almost see the 4x3 aspect ratio intruding on the shots. While not as involved as AUSTRALIA with medium shots that show a full figure on screen, the movie is photographed like a western of the 1960s. Westerns were damaged by the need to shoot with a television aspect in mind and you might even go as far as to say that such limitations contributed to the death of the western. Perhaps big, bright, widescreen displays will contribute equally to its resurgence.
There was a time when the western was the quintessential genre for the American film industry. In the last several decades technological change, urbanization, and societal mores have caused it to be replaced by other genres such as SF. But those genres are not inherently American. (Perhaps SF should be but Japan’s brush with science-fictional technology in 1945 coupled with America’s prevalent anti-intellectualism has caused that not to be the case.) Perhaps more films like APALOOSA might change that, but considering how many films of any genre aren’t as good as APALOOSA I’m not betting on it.