Appaloosa has been made with such quiet authority that its charms may be lost on modern audiences, who expect a certain amount of commotion, no matter what the genre. Of course, Westerns have traditionally taken their time. They're like baseball games, as much about the in-between moments as they are about the major shoot-outs. And Ed Harris, who directed and co-wrote the script (based on Robert B. Parker's novel) for Appaloosa, seems determined to stop and smell the sagebrush. He hasn't reinvented the Western, as so many directors try to do these days. He's just made another one - a good, if not quite great, one. But there are so many incidental pleasures to be had that you wind up grateful it rode into town.
It's 1882 in the New Mexico territory, and a one-horse town called Appaloosa is in dire need of some law enforcement, the sheriff having been shot in cold blood by the head of a local gang (Jeremy Irons, surprisingly gritty). As if in answer to the townspeople's prayers, Virgil Cole (Harris) arrives, along with his sidekick, Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen). His face as cold as a slab of stone, Virgil is something between a gun-for-hire and an angel of death, and it's not long before he starts meting out frontier justice. But there's also a tender side to him, as there is to Everett. They both have a passion for book larnin', for instance. Virgil likes to talk all highfalutin, but sometimes Everett has to supply the proper multisyllabic word.
Harris and Mortensen get such a sneaky thing going between them, chipping off little flecks of humor, that you might not notice it's even there were it not for the arrival of Miss Allison French (Renée Zellweger), a woman who, as Virgil points out, is neither a whore nor a squaw. Her air of refinement leaves Virgil weak in the knees and Everett wondering where he fits in the scheme of things. Zellweger, with those chipmunk cheeks of hers, knows just how to play a woman who snuggles up to whichever man is currently running things. As with almost every other Western ever made, Appaloosa explores the moral consequences of life on the frontier. Everyone would prefer to act civilized, they just don't have the word for it yet.