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Yes, they’re still making westerns. The plots are still generic. Lawmen upholding the law in a lawless land. So what’s new?

What’s new is the fine tuning of characterization, the focus on internal conflicts and dilemmas, and the more stylistic and agile camera works, the music, and the slower, almost meditative pace of story development. I have in mind Open Range (2003), and the recent 3:10 to Yuma (2007).

… And at the Globe where the movie was screened, among the full house attendance at the Calgary International Film Festival, some enthusiasts even dressed western for the occasion.

Ed Harris has proved that he is versatile as an actor and director (Pollack, 2000), and now as a screenwriter. He is all three in Appaloosa. Based on the book by Robert B. Parker, Appaloosa is a typical western buddy movie.  Virgil Cole (Ed Harris) and his sidekick Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen, with Harris in A History of Violence, 2005) are two “itinerant lawmen”.  They are hired this time by the town of Appaloosa, as marshal and deputy, to get rid of the lawless rancher Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons) and his gang.  The twists begin to emerge when a young widow shows up in town.  Allie French (Renée Zellweger) is so alone, so vulnerable, that she has her eye on the tough marshal Cole as soon as she enters town.

The buddy duo has some adjustment to make with this sudden appearance of a third party.  With a woman in his life, Cole himself has become vulnerable and is soon confronted with the dilemma: woman or duty.  Well that’s just one of the several twists of the story, a plot that takes its time to unfold.

As much as I like Renée Zellweger, I find her portrayal of Allie French less than satisfactory. There is definitely a miscast here. It takes more than just acting to bring out the sly femme fatale persona… her look and demeanour just do not reflect the menacing shrewdness and seductive lure needed here. It is unfortunate that Zellweger is cast into a role that she simply does not look the part.

But the movie is still enjoyable just the same. It is slick, funny, clever, and entertaining. Overall the acting is superb, but it is Viggo Mortensen who steals the show. As the quiet, and very intelligent sidekick of Virgil Cole, Everett Hitch has been more than supportive of his buddy. He is Cole’s vocabulary teacher, attentive listener and counsellor, and at the end, fulfills what justice and honor require a man to do, something which Cole himself has neglected. Mortensen has delivered a most gratifying performance which I think deserves an Oscar nomination.

At the end, after twists and turns, the hero rides off into the sunset, a typical conclusion. But this time, we are reminded why we come to see a western to begin with.  Such is the kind of movies where honor and nobility of character is expected of the protagonist, and that the good still wins, and justice served.  How satisfying.  Maybe that is why they are still making westerns, knowing there is an insatiable yearning for such ideals which are beyond time and genre.

~ ~ ~ Ripples

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