In the film acting game, a rare breed of artist both embodies and seems to embrace the ideal of actor-as-chameleon, taking radically shifting roles as a basic artistic challenge. Among recent examples of such virtuosos, we think of Cate Blanchett and of Ed Harris. In recent years, Harris has masterfully portrayed turbulent artists Jackson Pollock (in the Harris-directed Pollock) and Beethoven (in the shamefully underrated Copying Beethoven, and now a hat-donning Wild West protagonist in Appaloosa, which Harris also directed and adapted from the novel by Robert Parker.
Wait, what’s this: the Pollock/Beethoven actor as western gunhand hero, a self-appointed lawman and bringer of justice to a formerly lawless town? You bet. With his brute, laconic intensity and chiseled jaw harboring a simmering rage and a personal notion of justice, Harris is a true blue natural in the genre and the role. Actually, part of what makes Appaloosa so peculiarly fascinating are the details, shortcomings, and nuances in that very character, as well as that of his slightly more sensitive sidekick, deftly played by Viggo Mortensen.
Complicating and enriching the storyline is the female interest, played by Renee Zellwegger, whose greatest of frontier fears is loneliness. Jeremy Irons pulls of one of his best eloquent snake performances as the charming villain. “You’ll never hang me, Cole,” he says. “Never’s a long time,” says Harris, with minimal mouth movement. Cinematographer Dean Semler does a stellar job with the visual feel, although the all-important atmosphere veers off course with Jeff Beal‘s musical score, which valiantly attempts at a rugged, rural milieu, but can’t get off the Hollywood freeway. It’s a small problem, but notable mainly because tone and texture are so important to the end result.
Repeatedly, yet without pretentious genre-gaming, Appaloosa both plays with and against type. Conceptually, the film feels like an unlikely offspring, as both a variation on the John Ford-style American Western tradition and a case of the latter-day spinoff – a post-Unforgiven, post-Deadwood twist on the genre. An ironic OK Corral-style climax, for instance, becomes an extended coda, and the churnings of genre cliches keep giving way to reflective moments when time grinds pleasantly to a halt to take in the light and the land – or the lazy geometry of Harris’s lean body perched on the marshal’s porch. The chameleon triumphs, yet again, in yet another direction.