Unforgiven (1992)

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Okay, so I’ll admit that I have a pretty small sample size, but if these two movies are any indication, I’ve come up with a definition for a Western film:  it’s a movie in which women are treated like crap and men live out some crazy revenge fantasy.  Hmm…  That probably doesn’t narrow it down enough.  Also, it takes place in the late nineteenth century in what becomes the western U.S.

Maybe it’s just because I, too, am a woman, but I can’t help but watch Unforgiven wondering more than anything what the deal is with all the women in the story, whose stories are mostly untold.  First, we hear tell of two women, never seen on screen – the beautiful young woman who married a terrible man (who hasn’t been there?), and the mother who let her go.  The younger woman’s death is what triggers the action of the movie in some way, though she’s been dead for some time already.

Then there are the brothel women, one of whom is disfigured in an attack by another terrible man.  Instead of harsh punishment, the local sheriff lets him off because he’s a good cowboy – as long as he pays the male owner of the establishment some compensation.  Good thing we don’t have to worry about women getting sexually assaulted without the promise of swift justice these days.  Meanwhile, the disfigured woman (who, let’s be real, has a few scratches on her face but is hardly disfigured) becomes a social pariah, because there’s certainly no man who would want to have sex with her, not in a place where there are hardly any women and even fewer hot showers.  Her fate is to gaze moony-eyed at Clint Eastwood, who’s far too hung up on his dead wife to ever consider sex again.

Inexplicably, Clint Eastwood’s terrible-man-turned-upstanding-farmer-mourning-his-wife’s-death decides to join a bounty hunt for the cowboy who committed this act, despite all his assurances that he’s not a killer anymore.  It’s clear that he’s trying to atone for his previous sins, but less obvious why this is the response that’s going to save his soul, especially when it involves abandoning his kids (and his sick pigs).  Along the way, he brings his buddy, who also abandons his disapproving Indian wife, not that she actually expresses her disapproval in, like, words or anything.  Just another of the womanfolk, and they don’t have much of a place in the wild west.

We’re supposed to see Eastwood as the hero of the story, because he now eschews violence – though if that’s true, why is he on this pleasure cruise?  Spoiler alert:  the body count is pretty high in the movie, and Clint doesn’t hold on to his virtue for long.  Is this what justice is, after all?  You are only as good as you appear in comparison to the guy next to you?

The missing wife doesn’t get a voice – we only see her as the angelic force who mystically transformed Eastwood’s alcoholic criminal into an upstanding citizen.  How or why doesn’t matter (to say nothing of who she was as an individual separate from her husband).  Nor does it matter, really, that the film finds it necessary to explain to us that the departed wife’s mother returns to visit her daughter’s grave, sometime after her grandkids and their murderous father are long gone.  We’re expected to feel sympathy for the woman who’s lost a child, not because she was important herself, but because she married a particular man.

That is the Western story.

 

Theme:  Western

First Time Watching?  Yes

Final Verdict:  Not willing to forgive

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Million Dollar Baby (2004)

So, I swear that when I planned to watch this the day after Rocky, I didn’t realize it was another boxing movie. Sure, I probably knew the basic premise at some point, but as I navigated from the Best Picture list to Netflix, I didn’t know what I was in for.

Actually, all I knew about Million Dollar Baby was from a random joke on The Office (which I didn’t get at the time, but turned out to be kind of a major spoiler). Even that hanging in the back of mind didn’t prevent me from loving this film.

As I’ve mentioned, I have a soft spot for boxing. I have an even softer spot for stories about misfits or loners who find each other. At its core, this was a love story. We never needed to learn the meaning of mo chuisle to know that it was a term of endearment. It’s fitting somehow that it’s expressed in a means both open to all and couched in secrecy, like an inside joke to which only Frankie knows the punchline.

Yes, there were some problematic moments. I really wish Maggie’s welfare-cheat family had a little more complexity to them, and that the issue of poverty (theirs and Maggie’s) was more than just a caricature. But I suppose it served the greater story, that of building a relationship between Frankie and Maggie. It’s a film that warrants re-watching, not because to catch the things you might have missed the first time around, but to appreciate moments of poignancy.

I enjoyed contrasting this film with Rocky, to see what a difference twenty years could make in a best picture. Both felt realistic, but also of their time. Boxing is kind of a man’s world, where the women can participate only if they prove themselves to be as masculine as the male heroes. Rocky had a feeling of allegory to it, like David facing Goliath or the Tortoise and the Hare. Million Dollar Baby had a sense of the fantastic to it, with its dramatic voiceover and the fairy-tale story of Maggie’s meteoric rise to stardom. One story of an unexpected rise, the other of a fall. It’s almost as if Million Dollar Baby is a sequel of sorts, not that Rocky really needed another one.

One of my favorite episodes of Battlestar Galactica featured boxing: “Unfinished Business.” It’s sort of a strange episode, half of it flashback, where not much of anything happens. The characters are in a sort of holding pattern, trying to come to terms with what they’ve just survived – the Cylon occupation on New Caprica. Naturally, they resolve their frustrations by beating the shit out of each other. And somehow, by the end of the episode, things have shifted a bit. They’ve regained some of their trust.

Boxing is a sport of trust. Trust in trainers and the people in your corner; trust in your own endurance and power. Rocky showed us the latter, trusting in your ability to carry on against the odds. Million Dollar Baby shows us the strength that can be found between a fighter and her trainer. Trust is love.

Theme:  Boxing

First Time Watching?  Yes

Loved it/Liked it/Hated it:  It was darling.