Appaloosa: Horseshit, mostly. Having already directed himself (very effectively) as an anguished artist in Pollock, Ed Harris here gives himself another actorly favorite, the rugged gunslinger, with diminishing returns. As the new, no-nonsense marshal of the lawless New Mexico town of Appaloosa, Harris has glimpses of promising chemistry with Viggo Mortensen, who plays a laconic deputy with leisurely humor and some of the sublimated bromance Montgomery Clift and John Ireland danced around in Red River. Unfortunately, the film quickly descends into a leaden panoply of squinting glares and cocked shotguns, not helped by Jeremy Irons’s perfunctory bad guy or by corseted Renée Zellweger, who, as the perkiest frontier gal since Doris Day’s Calamity Jane, is photographed to look considerably less fresh than such grizzled genre standbys as Lance Herinksen and James Gammon.
Two-Legged Horse: A radically different equine tale, Samira Makhmalbaf’s punitive film is less horse opera than Dantean circle. The smoke arising from the Afghan village of pipes and metallic tanks in the opening shot might as well be sulfur, since the story of a legless rich boy who hires a gangly, bent young slum-dweller to carry him around on his back proceeds as a hellishly escalating nightmare in which oppression, social injustice and dearth of compassion combine to reverse the evolutionary process. In Makhmalbaf’s purposefully distressing scald, the exploited virtually become the animals the elite envisions them as—the lingering shot of the poor carrier made to race amid the other students’ donkeys has the kind of crude, evocative fury the filmmaker’s father Mohsen (who wrote the screenplay) found in his fervent early works. Refusing to dilute her litany of absurdist cruelty even a bit, Makhmalbaf has created an authentically excruciating film. Take that as genuine (if cautious) praise.
This blog entry was originally published on Slant Magazine on the date above.