Let God rise up, let his enemies be scattered;
let those who hate him flee before him.
As smoke is driven away, so drive them away;
as wax melts before the fire,
let the wicked perish before God.
But let the righteous be joyful;
let them exult before God;
let them be jubilant with joy.
The film takes its title from the name of the small New Mexican town that employs two gun slingers to free it from the tyrannical yoke of Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons), a ruthless rancher out to control the area. Virgil Cole (Ed Harris) and his deputy Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen) have settled into a lengthy relationship as they clean up town after town in the old West. Thus they are at ease with one another, Virgil taking the lead, and Everett supplying him at times with the right vocabulary, as well as helping to mollify Virgil’s occasional outburst of bad temper. The two are not all that different from the bad guys, in that they demand total control of the towns they are hired to protect—no questions asked.
Then the daily train brings to town a widow obviously on the make, Allie French (Reneé Zellweger) with but a dollar or two for living expenses. She soon lures bachelor Virgil into getting her set up at the hotel, where she plays the piano. Almost before he realizes what has hit him he is building a house for the two of them. Will she break up what has until now been a monogamous relation between the long-time friends, especially as her eyes occasional flirt with Everett? The villainous rancher Randall Bragg, a smooth talker who has been used to slithering out of difficult situations, is not easily defeated, and Ellie is the kind of person who just might go for him as well.
Directed and co-written by Ed Harris (based on the 2005 novel by Robert B. Parker), the film tries to blend romantic comedy with the traditional Western, with mixed results. Harris is more interested in character development than traditional plot, yet there is plenty of gun play resulting in enough corpses to keep the undertaker busy. Like many modern Westerns, the morality is not so black and white, with Allie’s character especially being quite a departure from women in older Westerns.
For reflection/Discussion 1) How would you describe the morality of Virgil and Everett? What really distinguishes them from the villains?
2) How is Allie different from the usual women depicted in Westerns? What two roles were usually assigned to them? How is her independence ahead of her time? What does she have to rely on to make her way in the world? Compare her to Becky Sharp in the 2004 film Vanity Fair.
3) What decisions confront Virgil, and how do you think he resolves them?