Friday, January 20, 2012

Double Feature Friday: Cowboy Revenge Edition

Double Feature Friday is a weekly post curating two films based on a given theme.

Everyone loves a good revenge movie. That's why there are so many amazing revenge flicks. It certainly wasn't easy to select just two movies on this theme, so I decided to narrow the scope to a single genre: the American Western. Every good Western invariably concerns a heroic cowboy getting revenge on some no-good rotten scoundrels, but here are two films that go a step beyond.

My personal favorite Western is 1992's Unforgiven. Directed by the supreme cowboy himself, Clint Eastwood, the film focuses on an old, washed up cowboy (William Munny, played by Clint Eastwood) who hung up his spurs long ago. He decides to return to the game for one last big score to secure his family's finances. He is hired by a group of prostitutes to find the men who attacked one of their own -- a seemingly noble act with a hefty payday.


What truly differentiates Unforgiven is its brutal honesty. Most Westerns glorify violent revenge, but this film posits that there is no justification for taking another man's life. When other characters declare that outlaws deserve to die, Munny responds his famous phrase: "Deserve's got nothing to do with it." Indeed, the vast majority of the people who die in any Western are mere sidekicks and bystanders -- hardly the heartless criminals who "deserve" the ultimate punishment.

Eastwood certainly brings his decades of experience to the film, as both actor, director, and producer. He makes careful use of location shots, highlighting vast expanses of land as though the scenery is character filled with the burden of knowledge. His performance as Munny highlights the guilt and pain his most famous characters would have endured as they aged. Because Eastwood is an icon of American masculinity, it is especially critical that he took such a stance against so-called cowboy heroism. Truly there is no comfort in revenge -- simply the endless cycle of being unforgiven.

Similarly, drunken cowboy Rooster Cogburn is far past his prime in True Grit. After all, Cogburn is an overweight alcoholic with only one eye, but he still has the gumption to gunsling. There are, of course, two versions of the film: Henry Hathaway's 1969 classic starring John Wayne and the Coen Brothers' 2010 update with Jeff Bridges. Both are worthy films, so feel free to select your own cowboy flavor.

True Grit

As in Unforgiven, the cowboy is the vehicle of revenge, but he is not the one seeking retribution. That distinction belongs to 14 year old Mattie Ross, an orphan searching for her father's murderer, Tom Chaney. She does not simply want Chaney brought to justice; she wants him to truly suffer. However, there is no real comfort in Chaney's death. Ross simply becomes an untimely spinster, permanently alone and aged beyond her years.

Those are just two cowboy flicks featuring excellent revenge (or lack thereof). Feel free to share your own suggestions in the comments.

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