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Ed Harris starts with the right idea about Westerns when he directs Appaloosa as a historical look at contemporary behavior. He plays Virgil Cole, a for-hire gunman who becomes city marshal when the businessmen of 1882 Appaloosa, New Mexico, fear they're being run over by the ruthless mine-owner Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons). This allegory of American capitalist democracy is almost as clearly laid out as in the postwar Western The Man From Colorado (1948). It's interesting to watch Harris' distillation of law and order, civilization and chaos (what even contemporary slang calls "Dodge City"), especially in the way Cole relates to his pardner Hitch (Viggo Mortensen), who carries an 8-gauge shotgun. They're a study in the application of violence; so measured and quietly acted that Harris and Mortensen aren't just channeling Hollywood's great Western icons (a juvenile goal) but reflecting on modern uses of power-a grown-up objective. But then "plot" gets in the way. Cole and Hitch get distracted by the arrival of Allison French (Renée Zellweger), a piano-playing widow who blurs the line between-as Cole puts it-"lady or a whore." Like the way a needle used to skip across a record on a Gramophone, romantic confusion scratches through the film's political and moral themes. An emblematic court trial, references to Emerson and a train-then-horseback chase all lose significance. Cole and Hitch's almost telepathic friendship (8-gauge corrects the marshal's vocabulary and upholds his trust) succumbs to cliché. And following a years-forward leap, there's a sudden shift of enemy/ally roles. The town's changed loyalties-even Cole, Hitch and Allison's changed commitments-certainly parallels political history and depicts how Americans adapt morally and legally. Appaloosa demonstrates a better sense of history than Paul Thomas Anderson's hysterical There Will Be Blood. But Harris isn't a good enough director; he loses the mythical air that drives home a great Western's point. Harris' steely blues-with-no-love-in-them recall his performance in Alex Cox's Walker. And Appaloosa needs Cox's style and wit. Check out Cox's The Searchers 2.0, a modern-day Western, and the year's best undistributed film. -- Appaloosa Directed by Ed Harris, Running Time: 108 min. --

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