Appaloosa stars the compromised homesteader and second-act black hat from History of Violence, and seems to have been greenlit following last year’s posse of self-deconstructing Westerns, but, like James Mangold’s 3:10 to Yuma remake, it’s less a revision of America’s go-to origin myth than an appeal to our recently rekindled memories of it. Stoic men hitch their dusty horses outside the saloons of frontier towns under big Western skies, while fiddle music plays — Appaloosa has the grammar of the Western down, making its ingrained sexism, racism and endorsement of macho unilateralism all the more potent reminders of why exactly we needed movies like There Will Be Blood or even The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.
Viggo Mortensen, with saloon-keeper hair, and Ed Harris (the director and co-writer), show up in the title town as, essentially, Blackwater-style contractors, the Appaloosa ruling class timidly outsourcing law enforcement out of fear of mustache-twirling rancher Jeremy Irons. As our rough justice-dispensing heroes put the town on lockdown, Appaloosa tries for a Patriot Act allegory that, like The Dark Knight’s, ultimately reads as pro-police state out of genre cinema’s built-in idolatry (plus a little extra dig at the limp and later corrupt rule of law, in the person of the frontier-burlesqued town leaders). When not repeating I-may-die-but-I’ll-shoot-you-first chicken-shtick that dates at least as far back as John Sturges’s Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (not to mention Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, an adaptation of which Mortensen stars in later this year), Harris falls for widowed Allie (Renée Zellweger) whose “fine lady” airs distract him from the large red “A” stamped all over her frilly petticoats. (Zellweger’s generally affected femininity — those crinkly I-do-declare faces and flirty fake shock — is here at least appropriate for a self-styling classy dame.)
To the extent that Appaloosa addresses its relation to the Western, it does so via self-conscious camp. Harris’s man of few words actually has a limited vocabulary (he stumbles over syllables showily, Abe Lincoln meets I Am Sam), and is befuddled by Allie’s social graces. There’s a rejected-by-the-New Yorker-cartoon-quality scene of this hired gunman trying to pick out a curtain pattern; less sitcomically, but no less rotely, we see sexual insecurity throw him into a rage.
Stuff like that (and a choice cut-to on the word “prisoner”) is almost enough to make you wonder whether Allie’s habit of attaching herself to the town’s alpha dog really is a commentary on the powerlessness of women in this old country for men, and not just establishing the character as a slut. But I kind of doubt it, though: how much credit for self-criticism can you really give a movie that calls in an Apache just to try and carry off the white woman? No, this is a movie about what a man’s gotta do — that man is Mortensen, at one point framed in a doorway like Ethan Edwards, and what he’s gotta do, we learn from the fully endorsed act of vigilantism he carries out before riding off into the sunset, can be roughly summed up as “Bros before hos.”