It’s interesting that this is only the second film that Ed Harris has directed. It looks like the work of a seasoned filmmaker. Maybe it’s this freshness as a director, at least as a director of westerns (his only other directorial credit was 2000’s terrific biopic Pollock), that helps give the film that special kick.

Appaloosa is a straight up western, all right, but it’s also a bit unusual. It’s got of a sense of humor, it’s cynical and it looks at the Old West’s sense of justice and vigilance in a unique way. This is a western that questions the system, ethics and code of westerns.

A great deal of the success of the film is thanks to its leads, Ed Harris and Viggo Mortensen, who play peace makers Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch, respectively. Harris and Mortensen have an easy chemistry here, creating two characters who have been around each other so long that they have grown to rely and depend on each other. It’s not one of those phony-baloney Hollywood buddy pictures where the two guys play best buds but you don’t buy it for one second; this is authentic.

Virgil and Everett have been summoned to the town of Appaloosa to bring a vile man named Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons, who plays the part with lip-smacking devilishness), who has, in the chilling opening sequence, executed the town’s sheriff and his two deputies. Everett, speaking for Virgil, explains to the men in charge of Appaloosa that in order to protect the town, they must hand over complete control to Virgil and Everett. In order to maintain order, they will absolute power. This scene couldn’t help but remind me of the our current commander-in-chief and his administration.

Renee Zellweger plays Allison French, a young woman who arrives to Appaloosa, and becomes involved with Virgil, and lusts over both men. It’s a strange, tricky role, and Zellweger plays her as sweet, quiet and a little unbalanced. It’s definitely unlike the depiction of women in most modern westerns.

For me, one thing about this movie that helped make it work is the cinematography by Dean Semier. Semier takes full advantage of the beautiful landscapes, to be sure, but he also strikes unusual compositions that help elevate the story. One shot I particularly liked was of Ms. French, Virgil and Everett standing in a triangular shape; this makes perfect sense since this is a love triangle of sorts.

There are scenes of sudden violence, most chillingly when Virgil, seemingly out of anger at Ms. French for humiliating him regarding a question of a personal nature, beats a man at the bar within an inch of his life. There is also a terrific gunfight scene that feels, unlike many gunfight sequence in other westerns, seems like the way a real gunfight would go down.

Two other supporting roles come to mind: Timothy Spall plays the mild-mannered lawyer who wants order at all costs, and Lance Henriksen shows up as a gunslinger-for-hire. Appaloosa is an interesting western, and well worth a look.

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