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January 13, 2009

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DVD of the Week – Review of Appaloosa (2008)

by HELEN GEIB

My DVD pick for this week is Appaloosa, a Western directed by Ed Harris and adapted from Robert Parker’s novel of the same title. Harris and Viggo Mortensen star as long-time partners in the lawmen-for-hire trade in 1880s New Mexico. The film is the story of their time working in Appaloosa, a town plagued by the activities of a criminal operation run out of a local ranch. The plot takes some unexpected and interesting turns, but the film’s principal, closely related strengths are the characterizations of the lawmen and Harris and Mortensen’s performances.

Appaloosa adopts an unusual tone to tell its story: the dominant aesthetic is matter-of-factness. It encompasses the depiction of the town, neither romanticized nor mythologized, but simply a place much like any other where people live and work; the easy camaraderie and implicit trust between the partners and friends; the restrained, almost placid visual composition and editing.

The visual presentation of one of the gunfights, a showdown between the lawmen and the criminal’s out-of-town hired guns that is a pivotal turning point in the plot, is exemplary of Harris’s direction. Staged in a large, dusty, empty town square, the two sides line up facing each other, exchange a few words, and then exchange gunfire until one side stops shooting. The entire sequence is filmed in long-shot, suggesting the perspective of a spectator watching in safety from across the square. It is not remotely exciting and not even especially dramatic. A gunfight in Appaloosa is just another part of the lawman’s (or any hired gun’s) job; it concludes and the survivors go home.

Special features include an audio commentary by Harris and Robert Knott, who produced the film and co-wrote the screenplay with Harris, and four short features on aspects of the production and its historical verisimilitude.

Other new releases this week: Blindsight, Brick Lane, Brideshead Revisited, Choose Connor, Mirrors, My Best Friend’s Girl, Patti Smith: Dream of Life, Swing Vote, Tyler Perry’s The Family That Preys, Vicky Cristina Barcelona


4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Jan 13 2009

    One thing you forgot to mention is Appaloosa’s free and easy humor, which permeates the entire film.

    There were lots of times that I found myself just smiling at the screen.

    The humor is almost always as “matter-of-fact” as the rest of the movie. It feels relaxed and genuine, like the company of good country folk who don’t take themselves too seriously, but go about their tasks as if the world depends upon them. Because it does.

    I almost didn’t catch Appaloosa on the big screen, but I’m glad I did finally see it at my local second-run budget theatre. It ended up easily being one of my favorites from last year.

  2. Helen
    Jan 14 2009

    I liked the running joke of Harris’s character turning to his better-educated partner whenever he was searching for the right word to describe the situation or read a word in his Emerson that he didn’t know. It was a warmly humorous touch and helped to establish the easy rapport between the men that was so important in the story.

  3. Geoff
    Jan 19 2009

    A fine western, and I agree, the strength of the film comes from the surprisingly fun and likable repartee between Harris and Mortensen. It even overcomes the labored performance of leading lady Zellweger, who admittedly has less to work with than the rest of the cast.

  4. Jeff Faulkner
    Jan 23 2009

    One of the better non-revisionist westerns top come out in recent years. Harris and Mortensen should do more movies together, ala Newman and Redford in their heyday. They are infectious as a duo indeed.

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