Directed By: Ed Harris
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Ed Harris, Renée Zellweger, Jeremy Irons, Timothy Spall, Lance Henriksen
Director/star/co-writer/producer Ed Harris' Appaloosa concerns 1880s lawmen for hire Virgil Cole (Harris) and Everett Hitch (Mortensen). When the Sheriff of the small southwestern town of Appaloosa is shot while trying to arrest two employees of wealthy, politically connected citizen Randall Bragg (Irons), the town Aldermen desperately turn to Hitch and Cole, giving them carte blanche as the new town Marshals. Cole and Hitch prove to be a brutally efficient team when it comes to imposing law and order, not hesitating to butt heads with Bragg and his men. Their near wordless chemistry, born from years of working together, is tested when widow Allison "Ally" French (Zellweger) arrives in town and takes up with Virgil.
For his second film as a director, Ed Harris goes off in quite a different direction from Pollack, adapting Robert B. Parker's novel into a relatively straightforward western. The film is not afraid to touch on a lot of familiar western elements (sinister wealthy landowner, desperate town hiring sheriff for his violence skills, locomotive ambush, Indian siege of isolated group on frontier, "High Noon"/"OK Corral" style showdown, Lonesome Dove-style "bromantic" relationship between its protagonists,mano-a-mano pistol duel outside a saloon, unfathomable woman, etc.), and that is not necessarily a bad thing. Four decades or so along since The Wild Bunch and McCabe and Mrs. Miller and over 15 years since Unforgiven, a non-elegiac western with minimal to no post-modernism seems almost like a bold new direction.
Despite so many familiar genre elements, Appaloosa distinguishes itself by its attention to details of both period and character. The production design and costuming feels authentic. Viggo Mortensen's facial hair is so ridiculous that one assumes it had to be based in reality (The "Gettysburg" effect!). Other than some questionable variations in the accents and dialects of some of the actors through the course of the film, one feels properly immersed in the illusion of the films late 19th century reality.
The various armed confrontations are also staged in a way that feels authentic. By way of illustration, a lot of the scenes revolve around the suspense inherent to the potential of violence rather than having characters drawing their guns at every opportunity. On top of that, when a gun battle does occur, it commences suddenly and is over quickly, with no one who is established as a skilled gunfighter all of a sudden becomes a lousy shot just because they are a bad guy.
The film falls short of being a complete success from what I surmise is a weakness in its adaptation. The original novel was a first person narrative written from the perspective of the Hitch character. Empathizing with Hitch and understanding his perspective is critical for the film's conclusion to play out properly. While the screenplay was constructed so that almost no scenes aside from the prologue play out from a perspective that Hitch could not observe personally, the relative reticence of Hitch and Cole and Hitch's deference to Cole in most situations leads to a more balanced perspective than the novel. As such, the viewer experiences things from what feels like both of their points of view. This probably could have been addressed with a few more scenes between Hitch and his female companion, which are the only relatively unguarded moments where he gets to talk about his relationship with Cole when he is not in the scene. In any case, this lack of identification with Hitch in the first two acts of the film robs the final act of some of its impact. In many ways, the third act, which is told more specifically from Hitch's point of view and telescopes the passage of time, feels like it comes from a different movie than what has gone before.
The 16:9 enhanced 2.35:1 transfer and encoding shares a single side of a dual-layered disc with a reformatted 4:3 presentation (unreviewed by me) and all of the disc's extras. Given that limitation, I was surprised by how good the widescreen presentation looked. It appears that the film was very carefully compressed with some judicious filtering here and there resulting in a virtually artifact free image. Detail suffers a bit on larger displays due to the filtering, and there are occasional instances of ringing along high contrast edges, but it is otherwise an excellent rendering of Harris and cinematographer Dean Semler's carefully composed images.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track presents the theatrical mix with excellent fidelity. The film has a very subtle and dynamic mix which is repurposed nicely for the home environment. As previously mentioned, the action and suspense sequences in the film are as much about the potential for violence as actual gunplay, and the mix leaves plenty of dynamic headroom so that the handful of moments where gunfire actually erupts are extremely impactful. The mix does not use the surround channels for much more than light ambient support for music and effects.
When disc one is first spun up, the viewer is greeted with the following series of skippable promos. All are presented in 4:3 video, letterboxed when appropriate, with Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo sound unless indicated otherwise:
- Anti-Piracy PSA with clips from Casablanca (1:00)
- DVDTrailer for Snow Angels (2:09)
- Video Game Promo for Tomb Raider: Underworld (2:08)
- DVD/BD Trailer for Bam Margera Presents: Where the #$&% is Santa (1:38)
- Warner Blu-Ray Promo (Dolby Digital 5.1 Sound - 1:09)
- Anti-Smoking PSA telling you that smoking is not as cool as tobacco companies tell you (:34)
Next up is a series of featurettes consisting of on-set interviews interspersed with film clips and a bit of behind the scenes footage. All are presented in 4:3 letterboxed video with Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo sound unless otherwise indicated below:
Bringing the Characters of "Appaloosa" to Life (7:33) covers Harris' initial attraction to the book, actors' thoughts on their characters and fellow cast members, how the actors came to the project, the modest budget of the film, and Harris' working methods as actor and director. On-camera interview participants include Harris, Knott, Viggo Mortensen, Renee Zellweger, Jeremy Irons, Director of Photography Dean Semler, and Lance Henriksen.
Historic Accuracy of "Appaloosa" (10:21) looks at the attention to detail involved with the costumes, the props (especially guns), the stunts, and the 100 year old train. On camera commentators include Mortensen, Harris, Irons, Costume Designer David Robinson, Property Master Keith Walters, Horse Wrangler Rex Peterson, Stunt Coordinator Mike Watson, Locomotive Engineer Charlie Greathouse, and Zellweger.
The Town of "Appaloosa" (5:08) looks at the design of the fictional late 19th century southwestern town created for the film and the philosophy behind it. Commentators include Harris, Production Designer Waldemar Kalinowski, and Semler.
Dean Semler's Return to the West (5:17) focuses on the film's cinematographer. Topics include how Harris convinced Semler to take the job for less than his usual fee, Semler's attraction to the project, his working methods with Harris, the cinematographic style of the film, and Semler's return to film after several previous movies shot digitally. After a brief introduction from Harris, the lion's share of this featurette consists of comments from Semler himself.
Deleted Scenes (12:03 w/Play All) are available with and without commentary from Ed Harris and Robert Knott. They are also viewable individually or via a "Play All" selection. The scenes are as follows:
- Original Prologue (4:20) shows the original opening illustrating the crime committed by Bragg's men against a prominent citizen that leads to the confrontation that opens the final cut of the film.
- Walk up the Stairs (1:05) is an additional conversation between Hitch and Katie which fleshes out their relationship a bit but is not essential
- Buggy Ride (1:31) has Cole and Allie returning from their Buggy ride, picking up Hitch, and discussing the gunmen who recently arrived in town
- Praying Mantis (1:18) features a discussion between Cole and Hitch prior to Bragg's trial where Cole asks Hitch to watch out for Allie if anything happens to him
- The Blue Room(:54) extends the conversation from the film between Cole and Hitch where Hitch explains what happened when Allie kissed him
- Town Hall Meeting (2:54) features Bragg publicly re-introducing himself to the Appaloosa community, apologizing for his past transgressions, and announcing his intentions to open a hotel and saloon in town and form a copper company.
The film is presented on a single sided double layered DVD-9 and packaged in a standard Amaray case with a single insert explaining how the disc purchaser can obtain a reduced price Windows Media digital copy from CinemaNow.
Apaloosa is a mostly successful western focusing on the tight-knit relationship between a pair of late nineteenth century lawmen for hire that is refreshingly traditional in its approach to the genre. It is provided on disc with a better than expected widescreen video presentation carefully rendered at a modest bitrate, a completely unreviewed by me 4:3 reformatted presentation, an effective Dolby Digital 5.1 audio presentation, an informative commentary from Ed Harris and co-writer/producer Robert Knott, and some brief but interesting featurettes and deleted scenes.