Long before comic book adaptations explored the dark night of the soul, it was the western genre that offered violent morality tales. With characters exploring the boundaries of civilization, and questioning the limits of morality, the western externalizes internal conflicts. While the genre makes up only a small fraction of current movie releases, it keeps cropping up for good reason: Westerns epitomize everything Americans love and fear about themselves.

With Appaloosa, Ed Harris has taken Robert B. Parker's spare, macho prose and transformed it into a thinking person's action movie, an elegant, straightforward western that's as austere and engaging as the stark New Mexico landscape. He's the director, co-writer (with Robert Knott), and star, embodying the central character of Virgil Cole, whose forceful personality and controlling nature sets the film's tone. In this aspect, Appaloosa echoes Harris's directorial debut, Pollock (2000), where he also plays the abstract expressionist painter.

Cole is a lawman for hire, the kind of peace officer who gets more done with a steely stare and terse threat than most can do with a Gatling gun. But make no mistake, this gunslinger can shoot, and by the time he rides into Appaloosa, his reputation is fearsome. That's what Cole's partner in cleaning up crime, Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen), says in an astute voiceover. (Parker's novel is told in Hitch's first-person narration, and Harris maintains the importance of his observations, framing key scenes via Mortensen's perspective.)

It's 1882, and the citified residents of this booming territorial town are under siege by Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons) and his men, and willing to sign away their rights to regain order. As city marshal, Cole both sets the laws and enforces them, which sits just fine with West Point graduate Hitch, who chafes under the restrictive rules of soldiering. What begins as a routine job becomes more treacherous with the appearance of the seemingly innocuous Allison French (Renée Zellweger), a prissy widow whose dubious charms utterly unnerve the stoic but smitten Virgil.

With minimal dialogue delivered in precise deadpan (the opposite of the verbose, profane Deadwood), Appaloosa lives and dies on the characters' interactions. The weak link here is the usually reliable Zellweger, whose perpetually pinched expression and fluttery manner are dreadfully out of sync with Harris's meticulous pacing.

In the unforgiving landscape of Appaloosa, an individual can reign supreme by relying on their gun or their conscience, but rarely both.

Serena Donadoni writes about film and culture for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].

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