Ed Harris stars in and directs the movie set in the New Mexico territory of 1882. The town of Appaloosa is fragile, young and threatened by the ubiquitous evil rancher and bad man. Randall Bragg is played with restraint by Jeremy Irons, who may be the only living actor with range sufficient to play in both Elizabeth I and Eragon without missing a beat. Make sure you don't miss the opening sequence that demonstrates the full extent of Mr. Bragg's evil nature.
The heartbeat of this arid tale of friendship and loyalty is its cast. Ed Harris plays Virgil Cole, a gun for hire in the old West determined to keep order and protect the weak citizenry. This is the clay from which most modern day westerns are molded - whether we're talking about Shane or The Outlaw Josey Wales or Silverado or Unforgiven: It's the call to make a stand.
Virgil's right hand man is Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen). The two teamed up on A History of Violence, where Harris pitched this story to Mortensen. They are a male couple, like Butch and Sundance, in that best buddy tradition of the old West. Their friendship provides the soul of the film.
Enter Allison French (Renée Zelwegger), fresh off the westbound train from some more cultured Eastern town wearing her sophistication, if not her intentions, on her sleeve. Miss French and Mr. Cole become friendly, but from this point on her character takes a fresh and unexpected direction, and she creates one of the most unique women I've seen in a western.
These three are effortless together. The dialogue (screenplay by Robert Knott and Harris) is much like the cinematography. Unlike the Dances With Wolves rhapsodic pans and breathtaking, though sentimental vistas, here we see where we are with economy and understatement. And this combination of spare visuals, precision of language and the abrupt word choices of 1882 serves the movie well. In the same way the HBO series Deadwood used the vile details of Western life (lack of sanitation, medical procedures, profanity), Appaloosa pairs the dialogue to the bone to suggest the hardships, both physical and emotional, that characters experience daily. Put simply: they do without.
Virgil, however, aspires to a vocabulary beyond what he knows, as he aspires to Allison's sophistication. All he's really known as far as women go are "whores and squaws." He especially admires one detail of Miss French's character, "She chews her food well." Our imaginations are fueled by that detail. Harris' Virgil is constantly working on pulling words like "sequestered" into his sentences. It's the one area where Everett is the alpha; Virgil looks to Everett to help him get the word. And Everett is happy to comply without seizing the opportunity to win some upper hand.
A word here about Everett Hitch. Physically he looks like a character in a sepia daguerreotype staring out from a coffee table book about the old West. Tall, angular, with a goatee suggestive of Bill Cody, and an eight gauge that is forever by his side or over his shoulder, his presence on screen is magnetic. He is the ultimate sidekick. It was Mortensen's idea, evidently, to work this eight gauge fully into Hitch's character. No matter how congenial or genteel the conversation, the eight gauge is always waiting to speak.
Hitch's voiceover at the opening and closing of the film helps us sort out the bigger issues of life before and after the events in Appaloosa. And his actions throughout with their easy, clean, and simple decisiveness tell us much about him and Virgil. And for me, that is the message of the film. He aspires to be nothing more than the best friend he can be to the man he most admires. After the gunfire dies down, that's the real measure of courage.