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Now and Then – Appaloosa and Unforgiven

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     Now: Appaloosa (2008)
             Then: Unforgiven (1992)
 
    The End of the West
           The Final Ride

After being shown last month at the Toronto Film Festival, Appaloosa opened widely this weekend. Ed Harris and Viggo Mortensen star as guns-for-hire who are brought in to clean up the New Mexico town of Appaloosa after a brutal murder. It doesn’t take an expert to note that plot resembles Unforgiven , wherein Clint Eastwood and Morgan Freeman are hired by a group of prostitutes to avenge an assault. Which one makes for a better Western?

Rugged Auteurs
Both movies are helmed by actor-directors. Appaloosa is Harris’s second film; Unforgiven was Eastwood’s fourth Western. (He’s now got 30 features to his credit.) While each man is clearly comfortably in the driver’s seat, they definitely exhibit diametrically opposed styles. Appaloosa is controlled and understated. Unforgiven tends towards the melodramatic. If you had to side with one director, it would be hard not to go with Harris who keeps a stronger hand on his material.

Co-Stars With Wattage
Harris and Eastwood get considerable support from their sidekicks. Yet with all due respect to Freeman, Mortensen plays a more vital role. Freeman is basically a catalyst, killed off so that Eastwood can exact revenge. That Freeman has become the icon for simple decency is largely thanks to Eastwood. (See also: Million Dollar Baby.)

The Spin and the Straight

Appaloosa is billed as an old-fashioned Western; Unforgiven was seen as a commentary on the genre. But Appaloosa — with a stubborn Mortensen who refuses to adapt to a changing West — is actually more radical. Unforgiven ends predictably: with Eastwood killing off all the bad guys.

The Verdict
You could argue that Unforgiven won the Best Picture Oscar in 1993 because two other more deserving films — The Player and Malcolm X — scared the hell out of the Academy. Eastwood’s a great moviemaker, but Unforgiven hasn’t aged well. Chances are greater that Appaloosa will.

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