For a genre that is unique to American culture, it's surprising that we only get about one western a year. Appaloosa is a western by director and star Ed Harris and it's a pure genre exercise in the tradition of great westerns before it. In other words if you love westerns, you'll feel right at home in this film. There's nothing modern, current, or urgent about this film and I mean that in a good way. It could have been made anytime in the last thirty years.
The cast is good. Ed Harris and Viggo Mortensen are lawmen hired to clean up the town of Appaloosa. Jeremy Irons is the source of most of the trouble and Rene Zellweger shows up as a love interest for Ed Harris.
Ed Harris shows a lot of restraint as a director and a little different focus than most here. For instance, the music, cinematography, editing, and lighting all serve the acting rather than the story. The editing is very economic allowing the actors to live inside the frame longer and move about without needing a cut. I think this is because Ed Harris the director trusts his actors to carry the film without much back story from Ed Harris the writer. By allowing their performances to play out just a little longer, with less cutting, the characters can live and breathe on their own. The audience accepts them as real people that diminishes the need for much back story. I'm not saying it totally works, but I think this is what Ed Harris was going for. For example, when Rene Zellwegger shows up at the end of the first act, the movie doesn't explain why she is there or where she came from. All we know is that she is new in town and only has a dollar. The fact that she only has a dollar is detail enough for us to fill in a reason for her to have fled whatever life she had before. Films are less interesting when they have to explain so Harris simply doesn't.
The third act of this film is a strange duck, or maybe this is a comment on the entire film because by definition it does resolve the conflicts of the first two acts, but somehow the conflicts were more interesting unresolved.
I think one problem this film suffers from is that it doesn't know who it's main character is. It starts and ends with Viggo doing the voice over but it feels like Harris' story much of the time. Although they are partners, Viggo's character is much smarter than Harris' and yet Harris is clearly the boss. In the end, it's really Viggo who imparts any action toward resolving the conflicts and somehow its not very satisfying.
I like the first two acts of this film and I think there is a lot to enjoy here but I'm a little confounded by the third act and as a result, never really loved this movie. However in a drought of Westerns, I can still recommend it.