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Originally published Friday, October 3, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Movie review

"Appaloosa": Harris, Mortensen do right by taciturn lawmen

Ed Harris and Viggo Mortensen make perfect "pardners" in the smoothly accomplished Western, "Appaloosa," reviewed by Seattle Times movie critic Moira Macdonald.

Seattle Times movie critic

Movie review 3 stars

"Appaloosa, " with Ed Harris, Viggo Mortensen, Renée Zellweger, Jeremy Irons, Timothy Spall, Lance Henriksen. Directed by Harris, from a screenplay by Robert Knott and Harris, based on the novel by Robert B. Parker. 114 minutes. Rated R for some violence and language. Several theaters.

MOVIE REVIEW 3 stars

Screen chemistry is a mysterious thing; some on-screen duos make you believe that they've known each other forever, others seem to be acting side-by-side but never together. "Appaloosa," Ed Harris' smoothly accomplished Western based on Robert B. Parker's novel, contains a fine example of the former. Harris and Viggo Mortensen (who were electric together in "A History of Violence") play a pair of lawmen for hire in 1882 New Mexico. They speak in the kind of funny, staccato conversational rhythms that only people utterly used to each other can find. Virgil (Harris) is the leader of the pair, but Everett (Mortensen) often fills in his words for him. The two are comfortable in silence, keeping the peace in the town of Appaloosa by waiting together for trouble and, when necessary, shooting troublemakers. "It's what we do," says Everett. "It is, ain't it?" says Virgil.

And when a woman (Renée Zellweger, in a slyly pert performance) comes between them, you're suddenly struck by how much more comfortable these two friends are with each other than with her. She is the elegantly dressed Allison French, a mysterious widow who plays the piano (none too well), and who arrives in town with only a dollar to her name. Allie, as she likes to be called, sets her sights on Virgil, but she's hardly exclusive. Poor Virgil is so tickled by her he doesn't know what to think — Harris' goofily moonstruck grin is a small masterpiece — and soon she's planning their home together, with Virgil and Everett looking comically mystified by curtain swatches.

But this movie is a Western, even as it disguises itself as a period comedy, so there's of course a ruthless rancher (Jeremy Irons, eyebrows raised) and his band of outlaws who ride into town half-obscured by the dust on the road. As Virgil and Everett try to bring them to justice, their stories and Allie's intertwine in a tale of shifting loyalties, murder and revenge.

Harris, in only his second film as director (his first was the 2000 artist biopic "Pollock"), displays a quiet, unshowy confidence and a genuine fondness for the genre, capturing the horses and guns and saloon glasses in a soft, almost-sundown light. Though "Appaloosa" doesn't have the excitement of "3:10 to Yuma" (the best of the recent Westerns), it's an appealing movie that gets under your skin, in its low-key way. Notice how, by the end of the movie, we know everybody in the town; even the characters with barely any lines (like an Irish hotel maid) seem to have etched their own stories.

And there's a real joy in watching Harris and Mortensen connect, in the way their characters' friendship is conveyed by tiny nods (there's one at the end, from Everett, that speaks volumes) and sentences as spare and unadorned as the town's dirt roads. In one scene, Allie tries to kiss Everett, but is rebuffed. "You're with Virgil," he tells her simply. "So am I."

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725

or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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