Dusty Trails 

The enjoyable Western conventions in “Appaloosa” get a little too rangy to follow by the end.

click to enlarge art41_film_apaloosa_200.jpg

There's a lot to like about “Appaloosa.” It's a simple, slightly old-fashioned Western made by a likeable actor, Ed Harris, who also stars. It has Viggo Mortensen, in the role of a cool and collected gunslinger that he seems made to play, and a rousing throwback score that chimes in whenever he and Harris ride into view on a background that, though unfortunately shot digitally, effectively frames the impressive New Mexico landscape. It has a memorable sequence halfway through that deserves to be included in the canon of great Western shootouts, and a complement to it at the close. The movie even manages to do something heretofore deemed cinematically impossible, namely make Renee Zellweger appear as something other than simply cute.

Then again, “Appaloosa” can be a tough trail to follow. Its story has so much trouble staying connected chapter to chapter (and eventually scene to scene) it can be impossible at times to comprehend what it's trying to say outside its basic premise. This raises a difficult question posed by the occasional odd film, namely this: How it can be so enjoyable when it's objectively not very good?

The story begins with the introduction of the bad guys, led by Jeremy Irons, a shady Easterner who's acquired a local mine through dubious circumstances, and has upset the local townspeople by gunning down their marshal and his deputies. The town elders call in Virgil Cole (Harris) and Everett Hitch (Mortensen), professional gunfighters who operate as traveling lawmen for hire. They insist on absolute power, a circumstance that soon dissipates with surprisingly little resonance.

That sort of thing is a frequent issue for “Appaloosa,” with many intriguing nuances that horn in on the basic good-guys-vs.-bad-guys plot, only to skedaddle before you can wrangle their meaning. Only an unconventional romance between Virgil and a lonely widow (Zellweger) holds water throughout the movie.

Her introduction to the proceedings perhaps best encapsulates what's right and wrong with this picture, as it runs the gamut from her sentimental arrival by afternoon train and Harris' heavy-handed handling of the moment, to his character's  playfully coarse introduction to her, inquiring whether she's a whore as if asking whether she takes sugar with her coffee. Rarely is one as at-once amused and confused by a sequence, or a movie, as in “Appaloosa.” (R) 114 min. S



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