APPALOOSA

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Overall Impression – I love westerns, and really wanted to like this one.  But a misplaced protagonist and a surprise stakes character left this one a few head short of a herd.

THE FOUR QUESTIONS

Who is your main character? – Viggo Mortensen’s character Everett Hitch

What is he trying to accomplish? – Professional: Bring order to the town of Appaloosa. Personal: Protect his best friend Virgil. Private: This is just a theory here, but reconcile his emotional bond to Virgil while also trying to let Virgil go.  I may be reaching here, but there was a strong through line that pointed towards a homoerotic relationship that never went full BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, but felt like it almost wanted to.

Who’s trying to stop him? – Randall Bragg, an immoral (wait for it…) rancher.

What happens if he fails? – Virgil and he will die.

THE FOUR ARCHETYPES

Orphan – Everett and Virgil ride into town.  The town elders are desperate to get Bragg and his men under control, and they agree to Virgil’s demand that once hired, he is the law.

Wanderer – After finding enough evidence, Everett and Virgil arrest Bragg and hold him for trial.  In the meantime, an attractive widow named Allison comes to town and Virgil falls for her.  Not being particularly good with women, he has to learn how to romance the classy widow.

Warrior – Virgil and Everett must escort Bragg to another city where he’s to be hung.  Their train is ambushed by hired gunmen who have taken Allison hostage.  Bragg is released, and now Everett and Virgil set off to track him down and rescue Allison.  They must team up with the hijackers in order for all of them to survive the renegade Indians in the area.  Virgil must also deal with his feelings towards Allison when it becomes obvious that she and one of her kidnappers got particularly cozy…and she didn’t mind one bit.

Martyr – Bragg is brought in to justice, however he gets a presidential pardon and become a “reformed” member of society.  Virgil and Everett go up against the kidnappers (now that they’re all out of danger and don’t need each other) and win the gunfight, though both are wounded.  With Bragg now out of the shadows, the town elders don’t particularly want Virgil and Everett around, and when Everett sees that Bragg and Allison are cozy (there’s that word again), Everett calls out Bragg for a gunfight in order to eliminate him so that Virgil won’t have to compete against Bragg for Allison’s affection.  Upon winning the duel, Everett rides off, leaving Virgil and Allison to presumably have a happy life together.

AND, IN THE END…

Here is another movie whose structure and character problems become very clear once looked at through the lens of Contour.

Ed Harris did a wonderful, spare, job of directing APPALOOSA, however in the scripting he tries to have his cake and eat it too, splitting the protagonist arc between both characters Virgil and Everett.  It’s Virgil who seems to be making all the decisions, but it’s Everett’s narration we hear.   And even though Allison is introduced early enough and played as the stakes character, in the final showdown of Good Guy vs Bad Guy over Stakes, it’s Everett vs Bragg, over Virgil, and not Virgil vs Bragg over Allison as one might have expected.

Virgil is painted as the alpha male, which is what attracts Allison to him in the first place.  He comes on very strong and seems to be placed as the protagonist, however he often loses our empathy by appearing weak, giggling like a schoolboy in love, and by pursuing a woman who basically will sleep with anyone she perceives as being able to protect her.  We’re not rooting for these two to get together.

There is a core of an interesting story idea here that could have been explored more fully; the deputy as main character.  But if that’s the story you wish to tell, you have to tell the deputy’s story more fully than you do the sheriff’s. Such was not the case here.

APPALOOSA comes out shooting, but once the protagonist arc gets split, the story starts misfiring as often as it doesn’t.

— Jeffrey Alan Schechter

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