directed by Ed Harris
written by Ed Harris and Robert Knott
based on the novel by Robert Parker
starring Ed Harris, Viggo Mortensen, Renee Zellweger, Jeremy Irons, Lance Henriksen, Timothy Spall, James Gammon, Gabriel Marantz
In this epic embracement of space and the mannerisms of two men who can exist together simply in silence, the tragicomedy of the great Wild West is played out. The pace is languid and the story relates myriad complexities that arise when an unforseen element is introduced into a tranquility.
The film takes place on the plains in 1888 Texas. Virgil Cole (Harris) and Everett Hitch (Mortensen) are lawmen who have known each other for a good long while. They are intimate without necessarily being close and it is their distance which proves to be their greatest strengths. They are the fastest shooters in the State and very few men dare to test them. One of those men who is not slightly afraid of their reputation is Randall Bragg (Irons) who as the film opens is having a dispute with Marshall Jack Bell (Robert Jauregui) and his deputies. Shots from Braggs rifle ring out and all three men lie dead. The word gets back to the town leaders who hire Virgil to get to the bottom of what happened. This leads to one conflict that involves the relationship between Braggs and the two lawmen. The other emerges when a woman named Allison French (Zellweger) appears immediately drawing Virgil’s attention. They start a romance and Virgil is visibly nervous around her and projects a vulnerable persona whenever they are apart. Allison proves to be something other than what she appears and it becomes obvious that she represents a certain ease of character that Virgil is only too used to. To complicate matters Everett and Allison develop a strong connection that threatens to challenge the efficacy of the two men’s friendship.
The film focuses on the relationship between Virgil and Everett. Often they sit together at a comfortable distance and hardly say a word. When they do speak it is clear that they understand each other on a level that is almost mystical. This is an intimate, delicate portrait of the psychologies of two men who have seen their share of killing over the course of their careers. Most of the information about them is casually revealed and a clear portrait emerges from these fragments. These are two men who communicate using minimal verbal language and who also connect through their physical language. It is the language that comes from having shared in virtually the same experiences for such a sustained length of time. Their bond has been won through danger and it is a bond that is quite unlike most others.
The characters in this film are mostly outlaws who imagine they have figured out a way to upset the perfect tyranny set up by Virgil and Everett. Bragg has a large gang and his boys routinely attempt to upset the town by acting belligerently in the saloon and annoying the customers. They are presented as pests who pose a direct threat to the order that Virgil is determined to keep. Naturally, this conflict plays a central role in the film as it is directly linked to the actions of Braggs who is the only man who is as equally gifted with a fire arm as Virgil and Everett. He is the primary threat and in virtually every way equal or superior to his counterparts. One interesting aspect of Virgil’s character is that he finds himself routinely grasping at the proper word when he is attempting to communicate. He is forced under such circumstances to ask Everett for the correct word. He also reads Emerson and these two factors suggest a man who isn’t quite sure about things beyond his control yet he strives precisely for this understanding. Braggs is more agile with language and represents a cultured, nuanced criminal which is something Virgil is not adept at dealing with. He confounds Virgil who attempts to mask his confusion through his upright posture and straightforward manner.
Virgil and Everett are plain speaking, honest men who do precisely what they say they are going to do. There is an immediacy about them and they are simply precisely the men they appear to be. They are not duplicitous nor are the apt to attempt to fool anyone through word or deed. Theirs is a practical morality and it guides them toward the actions that are vital to their line of work. They do not seem to think in terms of wrong and right, at least in an ethical sense. The only wrong is something that causes an action to fail in achieving its directive. Right is whatever works, essentially. Death becomes a routine factor that informs every action. The cool possibility of losing their lives has resigned each man to a nonchalance about the entire prospect. They fear nothing and live in accordance to the simplest of laws: get him before he gets you. They are magicians with a gun and brimming with common sense that is nevertheless thwarted when Allison French shows up. She brings in a whole new world of miseries that upset the order that has been maintained. With her flirtatious manner and wanton sensibilities she introduces chaos in their ordered lives. She plants the seeds of discord in the mind of Everett but he is loyal to a fault and cannot betray his friend of many years.
The cinematography by Dean Semler is sparse and poetic. It captures the openness and wildness of the territory. There is a real sense of time and space and his framing of Virgil and Everett is both still and dynamic. The score by Jeff Beal adds a haunting quality to the film work and comes in at just the right time to add a hint of despair to the scenes on the screen.
The action in this film explodes like a wild beast tearing the throat out of its prey. There is surprisingly very little violence in this film but when it does appear it is dynamic and searing. This is a film where each character knows their place and acts in accordance to a personal code that either reflects honor or profligacy. This is a time where honor and loyalty actually meant something and men possessed personal character and truthfulness. The law was paramount and it was easy to enforce when simple resistance or foolish attempts at retaliation always produced the same result. The law in this film is inviolate and the two men administering the bulk of justice are bastions of clarity in both their profession and their personal life. They are feared and loathed by men who possess a different set of standards. These are men like Ring Shelton (Henriksen), another charismatic and villainous type who proves duplicitous and untrustworthy.
The performances in this film are all quite good in their subtle execution. Viggo Mortensen gives an Oscar-worthy turn as a man who speaks with the proverbial big stick. His 8 gauge always at his side he is the cold, hard icon of the law. Mortensen is thoroughly natural and controlled throughout this film. He creates a character who is not lacking anything and who carries himself with a quiet purpose. Ed Harris is a cool hand who derives much of his identity from his ability to out draw any man at the table. Virgil is a character who suddenly finds himself domesticated and it startles him somewhat. Harris allows his character’s insecurities to slowly unfold although it is clear that they in no way come to overwhelm him. They are merely slight aggravations that affix themselves to his otherwise steely exterior. Renee Zellweger pulls off a dubious character with a questionable sense of moral rectitude. Zellweger is believable in this role and certainly capable of conveying a certain coldness throughout. Jeremy Irons is stunningly good as an essentially vital character who possesses his own personal code of honor. Irons brings a strength to his role that resonates throughout the film. Braggs is a man who is equally as self-possessed as either Virgil or Everett. He knows his place and Irons allows the audience to see the clearly defined confidence with which he carries himself. It’s all in his posture and gestures.
Overall, this film creates two men who exhibit a strong, viable masculinity that is honorable and profoundly consistent. They are two lawmen who know where they stand and are free of much doubt until they are confronted with the person of a woman. She turns things around a bit as she creeps inside their heads causing tiny disturbances that are eased in the process of upholding the law. This is a film about loyalty, honor and duty and the two central characters demonstrate each of these traits throughout the film. Ultimately, this film deserves to be considered when the nominations are announced for the Academy Awards. It has all the elements of a great film and the performances truly stand out as definitive and sound.