We all got it coming: “Unforgiven” (1992)

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By Scott Ross

What are often, reflexively, referred to as “revisionist” Westerns — which is applied to almost anything that isn’t strictly white hat/black hat and would thus have to include everything from The Searchers (1956) and the James Stewart-Anthony Mann projects to the 1968 True Grit and Bite the Bullet (1976) — are, just as frequently, merely variations on a formula, or pictures that take a dirtier, more realistic view of what was, after all, a place and a period of physical filth, covetousness, racist land-grabbing, brutality and murder alternating with back-breaking toil and intense boredom. It was a surprise of no small dimensions, therefore, that the actor who embodied the worst impulses toward extra-legal civic fascism as “Dirty” Harry Callahan should be drawn to David Peoples’ examination of the mechanics of violence: It’s deliberate, mercenary planning, and the cost of it, both to the victims and the perpetrators. Clint Eastwood purchased People’s screenplay and labored quietly for years to get it made. When he eventually did, he won the first of his two Oscars™ for directing and respect from people who’d dismissed him with prejudice years before. But he was always a good filmmaker, sometimes even (as with the 1976 The Outlaw  — Josey Wales) a great one.

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Clint Eastwood as Will Munny

An appalling act of sexual rage spirals downward, until very few of the participants are left standing, or living whole, and the only victor, if we can even call him that, is the youth (Jaimz Woolvett) who fancies himself a hardened killer and who, confronted by the actual effects of cold-blooded killing, is shattered by it. Along the way, Eastwood and Peoples give us a rich, almost novelistic, panoply of characters: The widowed farmer Will Munny (Eastwood), a reformed killer and ex-alcoholic who sees a contract murder as the way out of the grinding poverty he and his two small children endure; the puffed-up pulp-fiction gentleman killer English Bob (Richard Harris, in a marvelous portrayal) whose reputation is built on a lie; his literary amanuensis W. W. Beauchamp (Saul Rubinek), ever eager for a new hero to gild; the seemingly benign sheriff “Little Bill” Daggett (Hackman) who reveals himself a petty sadist with a particular penchant for whipping miscreants and for beating up old men, especially when surrounded by armed deputies; the former hired gunman Ned (Morgan Freeman) who knows his best days are behind him and who joins Munny more for the sake of fellowship, and reviving his past, than for fiscal gain; Woolvett’s boastful Schofield Kid, living on a braggadocio that serves to camouflage his two related secrets — his extreme myopia and his total innocence; the young cowboy (Rob Campbell) who abets an atrocity and shyly attempts to atone for it; the whore Strawberry Alice (Frances Fisher) whose refusal to back down on her need for vengeance reduces everything of vital importance to dollars and a warped sense of justice; and the sweet-faced, gentle young prostitute Delilah (Anna Levine) whose disfigurement at the hands of an enraged john sets the whole, grimy, hellish business in motion. When Unforgiven is over you feel you’ve been immersed in a complete way of life, from the meanest pig-farm to the lovely but lopsided dream-house of a man who, fatally, thinks he’s the brightest person around.

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Jaimz Woolvet, Eastwood and Morgan Freeman picking off the cowboys

Peoples, who wrote the original script (then entitled The William Munny Killings) in 1976 and, as David Webb Peoples, later collaborated with his wife Jane on the Oppenheimer documentary The Day After Trinity (1980) and the brilliant dystopian fantasy 12 Monkeys (1995), has an enviable gift not merely for literacy — rare enough in American movies — but for the silence that speaks volumes. While there is much about Unforgiven that is unblinkingly stark, yet little sparks of humor break through, as when “Little Bill” deliberately misreads Beauchamp’s depiction of English Bob (“The Duke of Death”) as “The Duck of Death,” which so amuses him he never calls him anything else. Peoples gives his characters breathing room, and his screenplay is decorated with grace-notes, like the lovely scene between Delilah and Munny, in which two sad, lonely people attempt to reach each other, ultimately defeated by the width of the abyss between them, or the long sequence in which The Kid reveals himself to Munny as the older man stands watching the horizon, awaiting the arrival of his payment for the contracted killings which encompasses necessary action with character-defining dialogue in the most beautifully economic fashion imaginable. And the performances match, and often exceed, the rich material, as do Eastwood’s spare, supple direction, the beautifully weathered sets by the veteran Henry Bumstead — Munny’s one-room farmhouse looks as though it would fall over if you blew too hard on it, and when the doors are open there’s virtually nothing between them — and the astonishingly lyrical cinematography by Jack N. Green. Lennie Niehaus’ score is less impressive, but is at least is not obtrusive, and includes an achingly beautiful theme for Munny’s dead wife (“Claudia’s Theme”) which becomes a soft, plaintive elegy, not merely for a woman we never see, but for Munny’s troubled soul.

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Gene Hackman as “Little Bill” Daggett

Unfortunately, many of his critics at the time saw Unforgiven as bifurcated, largely because of Eastwood’s response to Hackman’s assertion, just before he’s shot, that he “doesn’t deserve this,” which they took (foolishly, in my view) as a typical Eastwood audience applause line. They were obviously looking for a reason to dismiss what they’d just seen. Were they not listening to that other phrase of Munny’s, spoken to The Kid (“It’s a hell of a thing, killin’ a man. You take away all he’s got, and all he’s ever gonna have”) which sums up everything? Did they not see the way the process of meeting his obligations destroys all of Munny’s resolve and all he attempted to be for his beloved wife’s memory, and reverts him to his former cold, drunken, murderous self? Were they incapable of noticing that it is Bill’s self-righteous hubris that leads to Ned’s death, and his own? All they heard was, “Deserve’s got nothin’ to do with it.” Aha! Dirty Harry speaks! For them, that line negated everything the movie was saying about violence, and about the cost to the human soul of perpetrating it.

Reactive critics are a large part of the reason almost no one in America attempts to make complex movies. What’s the point, when what you’re trying to say is going to be so idiotically misinterpreted?

Text copyright 2019 by Scott Ross

Unforgiven poster

The Agony and the Impotence: 12 Monkeys (1995)

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By Scott Ross

twelve-monkeys-1996-movie-poster1Terry Gilliam is, to my mind, the most important fantasist currently working in movies, a magician whose finest achievements are the cinematic equivalent of a novel by William Kotzwinkle or E.L. Doctorow: Bracing, intelligent, daring, exhilarating, lyrical. Dangerous. Although his most distinctive projects are, generally, those he initiated, and on whose screenplays he collaborated, he has occasionally been a most effective director-for-hire on other people’s movies. It is a perversity of the filmic gods that two of these, The Fisher King and 12 Monkeys, have been his biggest box-offices successes. Even odder, perhaps, the latter is one of his most artistically triumphant.

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Bruce Willis with the splendid Madeline Stowe.

The presence of Bruce Willis no doubt had something to do with the movie’s box office appeal, although one cannot imagine the star’s average fans (12-year-old boys of all ages) being best-pleased with the result — nor, for that matter, with the later The Sixth Sense. But it is to the actor’s credit that he periodically takes on chancy work, and in which he tends to give his best performances even if, at times, the movies themselves (In Country, Pulp Fiction) are less interesting (in the case of the former) or fully satisfying (the latter) than he is in them. I can just hear his agent’s screams of anguish when he opted for 12 Monkeys… and at a salary considerably less than either were used to receiving.

Inspired, if not precisely based on, Chris Marker’s short film La Jetée, 12 Monkeys (1996) posits a future bleaker and even less hopeful than that of Brazil, but with the possibility of, if not Eden or Utopia (much less Shangri-La) some form of human redemption. That concept, coupled with the question of relative madness, constitute essential Gilliam territory. Here, working from a profoundly logical script by David and Janet Peoples — and on what must, in the perennially bloated Hollywood of today, be considered an almost obscenely tiny budget — Gilliam fashioned a movie experience that is utterly non-pariel.

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Terry Gilliam on set.

Thus Willis’ James Cole, the hapless, angry but essentially decent prisoner/experimental monkey of good (if fascistically implemented) intentions, may be read as mad or all too sane, and the ambiguity is intentional. Is the future which uses him — and all but uses him up — an inward manifestation of insanity to which all his outward acts are related, or is he in fact exactly what he claims? It may be putting too fine a point on things that his one-time psychiatrist, Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe) explains, in a lecture, “Cassandra in Greek legend, you recall, was condemned to know the future but to be disbelieved when she foretold it. Hence the agony of foreknowledge combined with the impotence to do anything about it.” Kathryn, of course, believes Cole is violently, dangerously insane, and her faith, tenuous as it may be, in the new god of psychotherapy, ultimately infects even him; he begins to question the evidence of his experience even as Kathryn doubts her own and just as she is slowly coming to accept that everything Cole has claimed may be the truth. This is perhaps not what Aristotle had in mind when he defined the tragic unities, but in thematic terms (at least those of Gilliam and the Peoples) the juxtaposition is a perfect, ironic narrative “rhyme,” one fully in keeping with the movie’s scrupulously maintained, if seemingly illogical, order.

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Part of the unsettling hybrid decor of the future — past wed, uncertainly, to present.

To say more would be to spoil the experience for those who have not yet shared it, although like any work of complexity and vision, 12 Monkeys yields more layers, engenders more plangent emotion, with each new viewing. Aside from sheer image size, the thing that cannot, sadly, be replicated in the living room (or wherever it is people watch movies these days) is what, in the theater, was an elemental factor in appreciating the whole: The superb sound design which, when called for, located certain dialogue — real, imagined or ambivalent — above, behind, and around the spectator, a device whose uncertain eeriness, as much as the unsettlingly grungy décor of the future, placed us in Cole’s own, confused position.

Cavils with the movie are few, and almost incidental. Over and above their startling appearance, we may wonder, quite properly, why sub-Saharan animals would elect to remain in a climate as inhospitable as that of Philadelphia, especially in the winter. Just for the sake of an unexpected shock? The green-hued homage to Vertigo in the movie theater lobby feels misplaced and unsatisfying except to a Hitchcock aficionado, as neither we nor, presumably, Cole and Kathryn, actually witness Kim Novak’s transformation in that movie. (They leave the revival house theatre too early in the picture to have seen it.) As the biological scientist whose concerns over his schizophrenic son’s uncertain activities prompts him to make precisely the wrong decision at exactly the wrong moment — and, also ironically, to trust the one person he shouldn’t — the usually reliable (and here, otherwise splendid) Christopher Plummer exhibits one of the phoniest Southern accents ever heard in a major movie.

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Brad Pitt: The most beautiful young actor in Hollywood as wall-eyed psycho.

Brad Pitt, cast as the son just prior to his ascendancy to stardom, seemed off-putting and over-broad in 1995: The most beautiful actor in Hollywood as wall-eyed psycho. Nearly 20 years later, curiously, his performance feels exactly right. Willis, as is his wont when he believes in a project enough for forego audience-pleasing action and his own starry salary, is superb as Cole, and Stowe is revelatory, making each step of Kathryn’s journey explicable and, ultimately, heartbreaking.

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Topside: In the absence of humans, the animals reclaim the earth. (The lion will be explained later; just don’t dwell too long on why he never migrated south.)

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One of the movie’s many superbly surrealistic, yet utterly logical (and sublimely lyrical) images.

Aside from the performances, and the Peoples’ exhilaratingly literate dialogue and refreshingly adult approach to character, incident and structure, what binds 12 Monkeys, and holds it in memory, is Gilliam’s unique and hauntingly original imagery. All of it, moreover, rigorously applied to, and in service of, the overall effect of the narrative, like Paul Buckmaster’s cunning use of the “Introduccion” to the Suite Punta del Este of Astor Piazzola (and of his own strategically recurrent, and achingly beautiful, violin theme), the striking cinematography of Roger Pratt and the beautifully realized editing of Mike Audlsey. Gilliam’s control over, and use of, these and others of his materials is often astonishing, particularly given the movie’s almost ridiculously reduced budget which, in an action franchise picture, would have otherwise merely accounted for its star’s salary.

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Carol Florence and David Morse in the beautifully ambiguous final scene. Let the endless, insipid Internet debates begin!

Arguments have raged for years over the scene that follows the movie’s climax, but if you’ve paid sufficient attention to the preceding sequence, it’s perfectly placed, and pays off magnificently, if not overtly — like the haunting eyes of little Joseph Melito, a child witnessing the culminating event of his own future. Its questionable grammar aside, I have often been perplexed by Horace Walpole’s brief that, “this world is a comedy to those that think, a tragedy to those that feel.” There is no one I know or respect who does not possess both perspicacity and empathy. For us life is not one thing or another; it is at best tragi-comic. Gilliam et al. understand, and honor, that. It’s rare enough to be treated, in these days of appalling over-simplification of everything, to a movie whose makers do not serve everything up like a set of instructions on how to think (although that’s also rare) or how, and what, to feel (far more common.) The seeming anti-climax of 12 Monkeys is a grace note in a world grown increasingly grace-less.

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Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

12 Monkeys (1995)

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By Scott Ross

Terry Gilliam is, pace Steven Spielberg, the most gifted and audacious fantasist working in movies today. Among other wonders, his movies fulfill the basic requirement for successful flights of fancy, as Harlan Ellison once defined it: They take you to a place you’ve never been, and show you things you’ve never seen.

With 12 Monkeys, Gilliam and his screenwriters, David Webb Peoples and Janet Peoples, posit a frighteningly conceivable future precipitated by a “Hot Zone”-like epidemic. Hoping to retroactively avert the worldwide disaster that has made the outside world uninhabitable, scientists from the future attempt to send a hapless convict (Bruce Willis) back to our present but keep over-, and under-, shooting their mark. And that’s just the beginning.

The dazzling juxtaposition of past and present, the enigmatic dream sequences, the recurrent use of the haunting, eerie Astor Piazzola tango on the soundtrack, and the riveting Willis performance make this a stunning exercise on every level. Lost on home viewing, however, is Gilliam’s brilliant, multi-layered sound design, which in the theater seemed to not merely surround the viewer, but to float from back to front and side-to-side.

Watch this, in tandem with Gilliam’s great, sad, wildly funny meditation on a different (but equally fascistic) future, Brazil, and marvel at this former Python’s manifold and completely original brilliance as a fantasist.

Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross