Ed Harris made his directorial debut 8 years ago with the biopic Pollock, and he's now given us his sophomore effort Appaloosa, a western based on the bestselling novel by Robert B. Parker, which Harris co-produced, co-wrote, and stars in, in addition to handling the directing duties. It holds many trademarks of the western genre, the small desert town (was there no grass west of the Mississippi River in the 1800's?), the evil cattle baron (deliciously played here by Jeremy Irons), the steel faced marshal (Ed Harris), his woman (Renee Zellwegger), and his loyal deputy/best and only friend (Viggo Mortensen). It also has the requisite shootouts, stare downs, and a few scenes of comic relief. Harris handles everything with a steady hand behind the camera, but the movie needs some paring down, as it feels longer than its 114 minutes, and isn't quite as satisfying as it probably could've been.
Harris doesn't need to prove himself as an actor, he has 4 Oscar nominations on his resume, and probably should've won the awards for his performances in Apollo 13 and Pollock, if not for The Truman Show as well. Here he's quite good as Virgil Cole, a man who doesn't always articulate his points, but is good at his job. His job is to contract himself and his partner Everett Hitch (Mortensen) to towns that are overrun with crime. They come in, temporarily become the law, and kill anyone who doesn't abide by the rules. Then they move on to the next town. The town of Apaloosa is terrorized by Jeremy Irons' cattle baron and the men who work for him, and they're happy to hire Cole and Hitch to clean up the place. Both men are expert marksmen and not afraid to show it, and Cole is a pro at diffusing the angry mobs of criminals who oppose them. Zellwegger's role is fairly well written, but she doesn't do anything here that a thousand other actresses couldn't have done. Irons is quite good as the bad guy, and Lance Henriksen is wonderful as a shady man from Virgil Cole's past.
Mortensen continues to show that he's one of the best actors around right now. The relationship between he and Ed Harris feels real, we feel a sense of history between these two men, and Mortensen's reactions to Harris' actions are priceless. Sometimes an actor will be around for a while before people really take notice. Mortensen first made his way into movies with the acclaimed Peter Weir movie Witness, playing a member of the Amish community infiltrated by Harrison Ford. He was later cast as one of the two leads in Sean Penn's directorial debut The Indian Runner, had a small role as one of Al Pacino's old gangster buddies in Carlito's Way, was the antagonistic Command Master Chief in G.I. Jane, and was Sam Loomis in Gus Van Sant's remake of Psycho. For some reason, Peter Jackson really wanted to cast him as Aragorn in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and when the actor originally cast was fired, Jackson got his wish. The movies went on to be successes beyond anyone's imagination, and made Mortensen a star in his early 40's. He used that newfound stardom to make a pair of movies with David Cronenberg, 2005's A History of Violence, and last year's Eastern Promises (for which he was nominated as Best Actor at the Oscars, and should've won easily). Mortensen's work here isn't of the astounding quality that his work in those last two movies were, but it's still of an extremely high quality. Both his and Harris' parts are very subtle, with no big showy scenes for them to showcase their abilities. What they do instead is create a believable relationship between these two characters that we'd honestly like to spend more time with, which is always a good thing.
Appaloosa is exquisitely filmed by Australian cinematographer Dean Semler, renowned for his work on Mad Max, The Road Warrior, Dances with Wolves (for which he won an Oscar), and Apocalypto. Unfortunately I can't find a picture of my favorite shot in the movie, which was one of Mortensen in the shadows holding his gun as Zellwegger nervously walks by. But if you see the movie, you'll know which shot I mean.
Ultimately I do recommend that you see Appaloosa, because although it's not a great movie, it's definitely a good one. There are no major missteps by anyone involved, the unshakable friendship between Harris and Mortensen is terrific, and the images are worthy of mention alongside the greatest in the western genre. Seeing how wildly different this is from Pollock, it makes me quite excited to see what Harris tackles next, because he's obviously as talented behind the camera as he is in front of it.