The western has always been the movies' great refuge to express the virtues of individualism, but the reason some of us consider it (still) the greatest genre is that it can depict the single hero standing above the crowd while also profiling the complex arena of friendship. The best thing about Ed Harris's "Appaloosa" is that he understands this and finds various ways to observe how friends can provide a haven when everyone else spells trouble.
This isn't to say that "Appaloosa" is a buddy picture. It isn't, anymore than Howard Hawks's great "Rio Bravo," in which John Wayne and friends find common bonding in their battle against ruthless crooks, is a buddy picture. Some of the jokey banter in Robert B. Parker's novel is absent in the screenplay, all the better to show lawmen-for-hire Virgil Cole (Harris) and deputy Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen) as a no-nonsense team, so deeply trusting of each other that they hardly need to speak to get to the point.
When Virgil and Everett arrive in the New Mexico Territory town of Appaloosa in 1882 (the time of President Chester A. Arthur and the gradual civilizing of the Wild West), they are part of that civilizing, taking on the assignment of bringing outlaw rancher Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons) to justice for the murder of the town's previous marshal and deputies. Just as Appaloosa looks like an archetypal western town, from its clapboard buildings to its small cadre of civic toadies, so Virgil and Everett appear like knights of law and order, ready to do another good deed.
As director, Harris takes this classical sense of the western too far, though, until it seems that the movie is carefully trying to keep the genre alive (given that Hollywood and, it seems, audiences, are always trying to kill it off) rather than extracting the most virile possibilities from Parker's tale. In this sense, "Appaloosa" is the exact opposite of those 1960s and '70s "anti-westerns" that tried to upturn the genre and make it hip. Harris's film is many things, but hip isn't one of them.
The arrival of lonely woman Allison (Renee Zellweger) threatens the men's friendship more than Randall and his gang; the film seems to be endorsing the ancient notion that a gal in a land of men is nothing but bad news. Allison smacks of suspicion, but she turns out to be merely a woman attracted to the best alpha male (or "stallion," in the local parlance) in the room – which means, first, Virgil, and then, much later, a seemingly civilized Randall.
The movie's biggest problem in getting this idea across is that it requires Everett to spell it all out, as a friend, to Virgil. Everett sees all (Harris's best filmmaking involves depicting Everett watching others, particularly Allison), but he ends up explaining things that are best left shown. The upside of this is that it's Mortensen doing the explaining, which is almost as fine as watching Mortensen carry himself like a elegant warrior in chaps across a dusty road.
Harris has made a far more conventional film here than his first, "Pollock," about painter Jackson Pollock, but as an actor, he's more attuned to the role of Virgil, matching the leathery toughness of western icon Randolph Scott wrinkle for wrinkle. In another era, Harris – and Mortensen, for that matter – would have already starred in several westerns. Harris should do more of them; only next time, much less carefully. Grade: B- (Rated R for some violence and language.)
• The Monitor's regular critic, Peter Rainer, is on vacation.