Westerns have had a hard time since the late '60s, when historical revisionism began to present cowboys not as heroes but imperialists. Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch (1969) blasted the genre to smithereens, but it was Arthur Penn's Little Big Man (1970) that lassoed the Western, hogtied it, sent it off to territorial prison, and stuck daisies in its gun barrels. Directors such as John Ford, Howard Hawks and Anthony Mann had already shown the malaise behind the heroism; but every Western after Little Big Man has had to look over its shoulder to make sure Dustin Hoffman's peacenik Jack Crabb and Richard Mulligan's monstrous General Custer aren't gaining on it.
Don Siegel's The Shootist (1976) probably was the last totally unironic, old-fashioned Western, featuring a magnificent valedictory performance from one iconic Western star, John Wayne, and a sharply etched cameo from another, James Stewart. But even The Shootist, set literally at the time of Queen Victoria's death, was a eulogy for a time and a tradition gone by.
Westerns have been few and far between since The Shootist, either in theaters or on television. Those that have been made—Unforgiven, Dances with Wolves, Tombstone and its rival Wyatt Earp, Open Range, Broken Trail, Lonesome Dove and its sequel Streets of Laredo, the remake of 3:10 to Yuma—have ranged from good to superb in quality. (The prevalence of one particular, surpassingly great, actor in the movies on this list leads me to observe if it you're a director and you want a masterpiece, all you have to do is put Robert Duvall in a cowboy hat.) But not one has been a straight-up Western such as Ford, Hawks, Mann or Budd Boetticher used to make. In the newer films, what side you're on doesn't necessarily signify what side you're on. Rick Schroder's lovable Newt Dobbs getting quirted repeatedly across the face by a Cavalry sergeant in Lonesome Dove is emblematic of the mindset required since Little Big Man. Some Westerns have gotten around that hurdle by not being Westerns at all. Lawrence Kasdan's Silverado was an Indiana Jones-style fantasying cowboy drag; Andrew Dominik's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford was a psychological drama that just happened to be about Wild West outlaws. (The most unforgettable Westerners of this decade appeared in distinctly non-traditional movies: Daniel Day-Lewis' Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood, Josh Brolin's Llewellyn Moss in No Country for Old Men, and the late Heath Ledger's Ennis Del Mar in Brokeback Mountain.)
All this is just to say that Ed Harris' Appaloosa comes closer than any Western in thirty years to being an old-fashioned, pre-Little Big Man Western. That's not to say it's the best Western in all that time—though good, it's not in the same class as Unforgiven or Lonesome Dove—but it manages to establish its identity firmly by allying itself with another genre. The screenplay, by Harris and Robert Knott, is taken from a novel by Robert B. Parker, who of course is best known for his Spenser detective novels. I haven't read Parker's book, but Harris and Knott's screenplay certainly brings out the latent film noir affinities of the Western, allowing Harris a more black-and-white moral compass than Jack Crabb would normally tolerate.
Set in 1882, Appaloosa begins with itinerant lawmen Virgil Cole (Harris) and Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen) riding into the town of Appaloosa, N.M., to stop the bloody predations of suavely murderous rancher Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons). Bragg has already shot the previous sheriff and two deputies, and the town fathers are looking for men who can put Bragg in a cell before Bragg puts them in their graves.
Cole and Hitch—so tough they make boot leather look like marshmallow cream—prove extremely effective in their new jobs, but the situation is soon clouded by the arrival of Allison French (Renee Zellweger), a genteel but impoverished widow who makes herself dependent on the kindness of strangers. Allie and Cole quickly become an item, but it is soon apparent that Allie likes to keep her options open. Hitch broaches the subject of Allie with Cole:
HITCH: She wants to ride with the head stallion.
COLE: There's only one of those.
HITCH: Yeah—at a time.
Several plot twists later, Cole—whose favorite saying is, "Feelings get you killed"—has let his feelings for Allie put him in a very vulnerable position. And no one is more aware of that than Hitch. No fair to say what Hitch chooses to do about it, except to say it's a fascinating variation on the principle of "Greater Love Hath No Man."
Appaloosa is a persuasive Western drama, with razor-sharp dialogue, resplendent visuals (thanks to cinematographer Dean Semler), and characters who—despite the interesting cracks and crevices in their personalities—leave absolutely no doubt as to where they stand on the moral spectrum. Cole and Hitch may kill people for a living, but they stand foursquare for law and justice. Bragg, on the other hand, may boast of his friendships with President Arthur and other dignitaries, but his heart and soul stink like carrion. Allie, the most equivocal of the characters, nonetheless is deserving of sympathy.
When she first arrives in town, all the men are amazed she is not, in their words, "a squaw or a whore." But, as a widow with no money and no skills except a very limited ability to play piano, she has very few options, and the abyss is always stretching before her. The stories of Lorena Wood in Lonesome Dove, and of the prostitute whose face is sliced up at the beginning of Unforgiven, show exactly the pitfalls Allie faces in that unforgiving society. Allie isn't admirable, but you understand her need to hedge her bets. By doing so, however, she moves inevitably into the realm of femmes fatales. In the starkness of its characters' moral imperatives, Appaloosa sometimes resembles a collaboration between Dashiell Hammett and Louis L'Amour.
Harris and Mortensen—who brilliantly played antagonists in David Cronenberg's A History of Violence—are brilliant playing best friends in Appaloosa, achieving a rapport on the level of Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones in Lonesome Dove. There is no higher praise. Zellweger is effectively kittenish in the type of role that, in the day, would have gone to Bette Davis or Mary Astor. Unfortunately, Irons is less convincing. He exudes malevolence, but the wrong kind; his Bragg never seems tough enough to challenge Cole and Hitch at their own game, which is what the role requires. Irons seems to be channeling Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood, but he doesn't project Day-Lewis' awesome power and grit.
Harris also could have edited his film a little more tightly; the sight of a cougar looking down on Cole and Hitch as they ride past is undeniably magnificent, but does it advance the story? Nevertheless, Appaloosa is an enjoyable example of its genre, thanks to the photography, the dialogue and the mostly fine acting. Among the most impressive supporting players are Timothy Spall as the lily-livered mayor of Appaloosa; Ariadna Gil as a level-headed whore who is Hitch's bedmate and confidante; and Gabriel Marantz as a stalwart young cowboy who testifies in court against Bragg.
If Western movies have had to acknowledge the influence of the '60s, many Western politicians have spent their careers denying it—none more doggedly than the man who has occupied the White House for the past eight years. I hope I live long enough to see the definitive history of the administration of George Walker Bush. Already there have been plenty of books and documentary films detailing the many catastrophes of his presidency. Oliver Stone's W. is the first feature film biography of the 43rd president, but despite some excellent performances—particularly Josh Brolin's in the title role—it is a disappointment.
Stone has never been much for nuance or delicacy even in his best films, and W. is far from his best. W. is kind of a "Bush's Greatest Hits" overview of his life and political career, from his Skull-and-Bones hazing at Yale to the pretzel-choking incident. Occasionally the story comes to life, as in a scene depicting a Cabinet meeting leading up to the invasion of Iraq. Not only Brolin's Bush but also Richard Dreyfuss' Dick Cheney, Scott Glenn's Donald Rumsfeld, Jeffrey Wright's Colin Powell and Toby Jones' Karl Rove come vividly to the fore, and for a minute we really feel like flies on the wall, seeing an exact recreation of history. (Thandie Newton's Condoleezza Rice, alas, remains an annoying, fuzzy-voiced weak link, who looks in every scene as if she's about to bite someone.)
But Brolin is the star, and he gives his role the life and depth the story lacks as a whole.
Brolin, like the character he plays here, was a little-known but well-connected journeyman for many years; he has leapt into world stardom with the same enthusiasm as George W. Bush, but with considerably greater panache. Brolin tells us everything we need to know about George W. Bush just from the way he wolfs down a bologna sandwich. His Bush has a deep-seated need to be, in his own words, "The Decider," in a constant quest to prove to his disapproving parents (James Cromwell and Ellen Burstyn) that he is the equal of his father and his favored brother, Jeb (whose character appears only briefly, as a teenager). "Nuance" is a word Brolin's Bush does not understand (although Brolin himself understands it very well) and neither is "patience."
Stone, however, shows a W-like inability to trust the intelligence of his audience, as shown in both the flatness of the screenplay and the musical cues. (When Bush walks around his Crawford ranch with his advisers, Stone plays the theme from the old '50s series Robin Hood.) And the historical personages on display don't always have the impact they should. Cromwell has his moments as George H. W. Bush, as does Elizabeth Banks as Laura Bush, but Burstyn as Barbara Bush and Ioan Gruffudd as Tony Blair aren't given enough time to register. (It was a funny inside joke to cast Rob Corddry, former "correspondent" for The Daily Show, as White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer, but Stone does nothing with the joke beyond the simple act of casting.)
Stone and screenwriter Stanley Weiser, to their credit, do create an effective running metaphor involving a football stadium that leads to a chilling final image. As far as it goes, W. is an effective portrait of a president who has the mindset of Hopalong Cassidy. If the movie had only a little more of the art of Lonesome Dove, it might have been a winner.