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Unforgiven

The other Clint Eastwood/ Morgan Freeman movie is 1992's Unforgiven. The third western to win best picture (after Cimmaron, which totally sucked, and Dances with Wolves, which prominently features Kevin Costner), Unforgiven redefined the genre. Instead of the typical shoot 'em up, Eastwood presents a character study of the retired gunslinger dragged back into the life. He also plays with the genre by introducing us first to the character English Bob, a notorious gunman who travels with his own biographer, and then having the local sheriff Little Bill shoot holes in all of the stories of his notoriety.

In contrast to English Bob's legend, which is far exaggerated, Will Munny's is understated. The Scofield Kid asks him about an incident where two deputies had him dead to rights, and his friend Ned reminds him it was actually three deputies. In fact, Will seems to be actively running from his own legend. When we meet him he is a pig farmer, as far removed from the mythos of the old west as an Edith Wharton novel. It's the money reward that gets him back into the life, though he is a bit rusty. That in itself makes for good cinema. He tries to shoot a tin can with a pistol and misses. He continually has trouble mounting a horse, a problem that does not get resolved even at the end. These aren't the western characters of old who are crack shots and jump onto their horses and are off at a gallop in an instant.

This movie is all about pulling back the fantasy of the old west and showing what was really going on. But the pure genius is that the characters themselves get caught up in the fantasy. English Bob isn't dragging his own biographer around for his health. And when Little Bill arrests English Bob, he gets caught up in the mythology too and talks the biographers ear off, despite being only semiliterate himself (he sees a pulp novel about Bob titled "The Duke of Death" and continually calls it "Duck of Death").

The character most caught up in all of it is the Scofield Kid. He no doubt has read all of those pulp novels about English Bob, and heard all of the legends about Will, and wants nothing more than to be legendary himself. This sets everything into motion with Scofield recruiting the biggest name he can think of to help him on his way to immortality.

Of course you don't just become famous in the 19th century (that's more of a 21st century thing). You have to earn it, and while we assume English Bob has no trouble earning it (we never see him shoot anyone, but from what Little Bill tells the biographer English Bob had no trouble shooting a guy as long as the guy couldn't shoot back). Scofield can't quite stomach the whole thing. That is another thing you don't see much of in westerns. Even in movies like High Noon and 3:10 to Yuma a major character might be reluctant to get involved, but once he throws his hat in, he does not regret the way things turn out. Scofield is just the opposite, chomping at the bit to gun down two cowboys, but uncomfortable with it once he does.

It seems to be a recurring theme that a lot of best picture winners feature a wonderful performance from at least one person who falls between the cracks afterwards, and here that person is Jaimz Woolvett who plays the Scofield Kid. The biggest thing he's done since then was Dead Presidents, and that wasn't even a major role. Woolvett more than holds his own while riding side by side with Freeman and Eastwood. And speaking of Freeman and Eastwood, if you pair two guys together twice, and twice they display great chemistry on screen and twice they walk away with a best picture statue, wouldn't you try to tap into that magic a couple more times. I know Eastwood is in semi-retirement and concentrates more on directing, but come on, these two are great together.

Eastwood is a great director (as good behind the camera as he ever was in front of it, and who saw that coming back in the spaghetti western days) but the dialogue and pacing can get a little clunky at times. On several occasions characters repeat lines someone else has just spoken in hopes of finding some clarification. Sure, this can happen in real life and maybe it can pass for character development, but it gets rather annoying after the first couple times it happens.

But that one little quirk is about the only thing I can find wrong with this movie. The other best picture nominees that year were Scent of a Woman, which has one great line from Pacino and that's about it, A Few Good Men, which has one good line from Nicholson and that's about it, The Crying Game, which has one good line from Stephen Rea and a shot of Jaye Davidson's penis, and Howard's End, which has British accents and back then that pretty much guaranteed an Oscar nomination. None of these movies are in the same league as Unforgiven. Some notable movies that weren't nominated, like Glengarry Glenn Ross, A River Runs Through It, and My Cousin Vinny were certainly good, but not great. However one movie that seemed to fall through the cracks once Oscar time rolled around was Quentin Tarantino's brilliant debut Reservoir Dogs. Like Unforgiven, Reservoir Dogs is a beautifully written and wonderfully shot character study. So what if it only cost a little over a million dollars to film. The budget doesn't automatically make a movie good or bad. The one thing Unforgiven has that Reservoir Dogs does not is the way it plays with conventions of the genre. Not that Tarantino was going for that, but Eastwood fills this movie with sly little references that fans of the western are going to pick up on. Unforgiven truly was the best picture of 1992, but Reservoir Dogs was a close second.


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