Ed Harris rides tall in the saddle as director, co-writer, co-producer and star of this terrific Western, a potently acted powerhouse that sticks in the mind and the heart. The source material is a 2005 book by Robert B. Parker, best known for his Spenser crime novels. Harris is best known for being a reliably superb actor (four Oscar nominations) and for scoring an acclaimed 2000 debut as a director with Pollock, in which he played the abstract painter Jackson Pollock. There is nothing abstract about Harris' approach to Appaloosa. Every frame of the movie indicates his bone-deep respect for classic film Westerns, notably 1946's My Darling Clementine, in which director John Ford took a low-key, almost lyrical approach to the gunfight at the OK Corral. Though Appaloosa is shot through with thunderous action and nail-biting suspense, the movie finds its soul in its main characters, in the friendship between Harris' marshal, Virgil Cole, and Viggo Mortensen's deputy, Everett Hitch. The two men have a history, and you can feel it in their every sly move and telling gesture, in their easy banter, in their hard-won mutual respect. Having signed up to bring rough justice to Appaloosa, an 1880s town in the control of despotic rancher Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons), Virgil and Everett do everything that's expected, except show off or show fear. "Feelings get you killed," says Virgil.
Harris and Mortensen, who co-starred in 2005's A History of Violence, do some of the tangiest acting of their respective careers, and they make a knockout team. Everett, who carries an enormous double-barreled 8-gauge shotgun, shows a quiet erudition in his conversations with Virgil. Nothing comes between their unspoken loyalty — that is, until the arrival of Allison French (Renée Zellweger), a widow with a knack for playing piano that almost equals her knack for playing men. Virgil isn't blind to Allison's treachery, but he's in love, and Everett sees it. So does Bragg, who knows that his wealth and power will trump love for centuries to come.
Harris deals with the story's modern parallels, with the fine distinction between enforcing the law and just killing people. "Are you afraid to die?" Virgil asks one varmint, who proudly claims that nothing scares him. "Good," says Virgil, pulling his gun, " 'cause you go first." Great line. Harris knows that the moral issues at stake here are timeless. His Western isn't revisionist like Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven or deconstructionist like last year's 3:10 to Yuma. His film resonates with themes of personal honor that don't age. Appaloosa is gripping entertainment that keeps springing surprises. But Harris triumphs by making the final showdown a battle between a man and his conscience.