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Westerns are prisms of myth that can be used to refract the confusions of later, ostensibly settled, days. Their power comes from their versatility, which in turn depends on the limited range of its materials: a small town in the middle of nowhere (in a starkly forbidding landscape) a powerful bad guy, a challenged good guy, a muse, and a handful of more or less spineless townsfolk. The powerful bad guy can wear many faces: arrogant cattle baron, crooked sheriff, vengeful Apache. The muse usually has a past; the good guy is often the first man to come along who makes her want to go straight. Over time, writers and directors have refreshed the myth by sedulously misleading the audience's expectations. The rigorous alignment of stock characters with good and evil is no longer necessary. Even more recently, the makers of Westerns have learned how to preserve the fundamental good-heartedness of the genre while introducing narrative elements that were prohibited when the myth was formalized, such as drug use and sex.

Not all movies set in the old West are Westerns. Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven, for example, although it often looks like a Western, is really a historical drama with both feet in the ground of fact. The story breaks at almost every point through the contours of the Western myth. The gunslinger can't see well enough to shoot. The sheriff is a decent lawman, but lacks a sense of proportion. The damsels in distress are prostitutes. The hero used to be the baddest of bad guys. Unforgiven does not play with the conventions of the Western so much as exploit them to make the audience pay attention to a very rich story — not a tragedy, quite, but quite as powerful as one.

Ed Harris's Appaloosa is a Western, complete with one element that I left out of the initial list: a passenger train, complete with smoke-belching locomotive and rickety-looking trestle bridge. Appaloosa is a sedulous distractor, going about its business of misleading expectations with a wry smile. There are a lot of good laughs, but the film itself is not funny at all — it is not a spoof. The problems that face the characters are entirely grave. But the audience is fully expected to see that the story has been managed with wit. That trestle bridge is not mined with explosives, and it does not blow up, even when the two passenger cars come to a halt right on top of it. Something else happens instead — something less violent and less expected, but not, unlike the halt, at all improbable. We might have seen it coming, if we hadn't been waiting for the bridge to blow up. Somewhat later, when the heroes, a team of law-and-order men for hire called Virgil Cole (Mr Harris) and Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen), show up for a gunfight, we're as surprised as they are to find that their opponents have most irregularly enlisted some extra heat. The dispatch of the bad guy, Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons), turns out to be not a dramatic outcome but a closing gesture, followed by a ride into the blinding sunset. 

The most playful element of Appaloosa is its muse, Allison French (Mrs), played by Renιe Zellweger. What kind of girl is this, we ask, as she saunters across the screen with her bustles and suitcases. By the time she shows up, we know that we're watching a Western, not some look-alike. We've been taken through a few amusing scenes in which Cole and Hitch come to terms with the elders of Appaloosa, a trio of suits played by James Gammon, Tom Bower, and Timothy Spall. Bragg's men have tried and failed to intimidate the new badges. When Mrs French appears, we know that she is bound to weave a spell with one of the heroes or the other, and indeed she makes very short work of settling down with Cole behind a white picket fence. Where will this leave Hitch? The question is planted and allowed to germinate quietly. There will be other questions about Mrs French to clear up first. I decline to pose, much less answer them, but I will commend Ms Zellweger for the courage to let herself be captured in some very unflattering moments, when her face manages to look both swollen as a bruise and moon-flat as a pancake. Cole rhapsodizes to Hitch about her cleanliness and her neat turnout, but he soon has reason to suspect that these virtues may be skin deep.

All too often, the Western myth takes a misogynist view of women — at least the women who shoulder their way into principal parts — and Appaloosa invites us to think very ill of Ally French. In the end, however, she is an ambivalent creature whose role in the mechanism that Bragg sets in motion to destroy Cole and Hitch is blunted. She may have "bait" written all over her, but it turns out that Cole knows when not to bite. Appaloosa gives this five-and-dime Kundry a real chance at redemption. When Ally says that she's afraid of being with the wrong man, or with no man, with no roof over her head, and nowhere to go, we don't so much feel sorry for her as recognize that this was the very real plight of many American women when the West was young. We may even be reminded that it still is, for all too many.

It will take, I'm afraid, more than one viewing to unpack the movie-length bravura duet that Mr Harris and Mr Mortensen perform in Appaloosa. Whereas Mr Harris has never looked more like himself — the love child, so to speak, of Mr Eastwood and the late Paul Newman — Viggo Mortensen almost completely disappears into the lineaments of a gaunt Civil War veteran. If his Hitch were to step into the pages of Wisconsin Death Trip, it would be to look like those haunted cousins and uncles who are clearly bound for the asylum. In the movie, however, he is the soul of calm sanity. Cole and Hitch are sexually-experienced men, but Cole has never fallen in love before, while Hitch is one of those soulful guys whom women don't hate when they have to move on. C'est la vida. The quietly elegant way these men settle the rupture that Mrs French makes inevitable is bound to become more poignant with further viewings.

It would be churlish not to sclose without noting what great fun it is to see Jeremy Irons get to have fun with a Snidely Whiplash role which for which, it is clear, he was always intended. (October 2008)

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