Monday, May 20, 2013

Movie Web Monday: Morgan Freeman

Movie Web Monday: Each week, I'll look at a specific actor's roles across three good movies. The third movie will in turn tie into the first movie of the next week's actor, whose third movie will continue the pattern. I will go through actors and movies at this rate, with the following limitations in mind: every movie(or television show) invoked will be one I either own, or wish to own; no movie or actor will be invoked twice. So sit back and enjoy as you fall into the nerdery's movie web. (Oh, and I'll try to keep spoilers to a minimum, telling you just enough to know if you'll enjoy the movie)

Morgan Freeman: Salt of the Earth

Before I resume the long-neglected-but-popular series Movie Web Monday, let me explain something I said a long time ago. Back in October of 2012, I mentioned that the long suspension of Movie Web Monday could be blamed on Morgan Freeman. And while I love him--more and more it seems--I have to say it really is his fault. Freeman is in just too many movies that I own and love, and he straddles so many genres and functions that it was a terrible pain in the butt to pick just two more movies to link into his cinematic chain. Now, when I first began this series, I wrote down a master road map for Movie Web Monday, which would span fifty-four actors and more than one hundred movies, and Morgan Freeman is not even halfway down the list. So how could I be stumped when I'd already committed, hm?

When I first set out to write this article, I suddenly realized that I hadn't included Dreamcatcher in Morgan Freeman's length of the Movie Web Monday chain. And that movie is a dear one of mine--not just because I enjoy it or I like pairing it up with John Carpenter's The Thing, but also because, like its namesake, Dreamcatcher links together some really great actors that are not currently on the Movie Web Monday road map. Namely: Timothy Olyphant and Thomas Jane. And as it stands, even if I took the road map down Mr. Olyphant or Mr. Jane's side-streets, I'd still be neglecting the other. I hope to incorporate them into this feature on down the line, but the agony I felt and still feel over having to exclude them from the current course was crippling.

But not anymore, so on with the blog post.

Movie: Unleashed (Own it)

Morgan Freeman plays Sam in Unleashed, a blind piano repairman who sits on Danny's other shoulder opposite Bob Hoskins' Bart. Where Uncle Bart is blithely crass and violent, Sam is gregarious, wise, and soft-spoken. But, as with any Morgan Freeman role, Sam is also his most potent when he's soft-spoken. And in delivering a fantastic performance, Freeman also cements the primary dynamic of the movie in opposition to Hoskins--the dueling natures of sweetness, innocence, and kindness standing opposite violence, revenge, and cruel causality. It's a role only Morgan Freeman could fulfill, as virtually any other actor would badly mangle the sappy homilies that he drops on us with pitch perfect droll. Like when he first meets Danny and drops the premise of the film:

Stuck behind sunglasses for almost all of his screen time and playing a hopelessly optimistic single father, anyone else would probably flounder in the role of Sam. But instead he anchors the movie with wry, understated humor and everyday life parables for living simply and honestly, which is exactly what Danny craves. It's really fun watching Danny absorb everything Sam does like a sponge, and in those scenes I find I'm jealous of the surrogate father and the son in those moments. Which is probably Morgan Freeman's greatest contribution to the film--he sells the patchwork family so well, that despite everything Sam goes through and everything Danny goes through, you can't help but feel a little envy for them. And not just because I'd like to one day be able to throw two guys at once by their junk.

Movie: Unforgiven (I keep on renting it, should probably buy it)

Unforgiven is a great western that stands firmly in the deconstruction side of the genre to the point that deconstruction is one of the primary themes of the movie itself. It's a western about four legends of the wild west, all past their prime, and their relationships with who they choose to be and their reputations' take on that. Clint Eastwood directed and played the main protagonist, Will Munny, who after years living as a simple farming widower and father, is forced to take one last job to save his farm. Munny sets out to recruit Ned Logan, Morgan Freeman's character, as they rode in the same gang in decades past. Ned serves as a universal anchor in a movie where most of the characters are full of beans and half-baked legends they concoct about themselves. He's constantly correcting Munny's version of past events and making practical observations about their situation, while Munny himself is so grimly set on his course that everything becomes understatement and assumption to get them one step closer to cold-blooded killings and their reward. Ned also gets a chance to pry some wry humor out of Munny's scenes, as Munny himself as a character is worn down to only two grits of sand rubbing together. As they set out on their journey, for instance, Munny grumbles about Ned being homesick, only to get a curt response:

He briefly elevates the film into feeling like it might slip into a buddy cowboy movie. Heck, if it wasn't so raw, depressing, and thoroughly grim, it'd be Space Cowboys without the space. Really. But when Ned steps out of the bloody business, or tries to, the audience is dragged down to a sad certainty that there is no happy ending for this western, and it's the common charm of Morgan Freeman as Ned that helps to establish him as one of the last good things in the whole dreadful affair.

Movie: Shawshank Redemption (Own it) Minor spoiler ahead

Shawshank Redemption is a period prison movie about human spirit and determination. Which sounds like a crap introduction to a high school English paper, but despite the hackneyed themes the movie tackles, it unveils and copes with all of the characters' baggage so well that it easily surpasses those limits and becomes a movie beyond its tropes and genres. It is simply good. And Morgan Freeman's character, Ellis Boyd Redding, or Red, is the standard bearer for that honorable distinction. Focusing on a group of endearing inmates beneath brutal and hypocritical prison staff, Shawshank Redemption leads us through the lives of the protagonists as though it were a slice-of-life movie in the vein of the Wonder Years, except that Wayne Arnold is a billy-club-wielding thug, Winnie Cooper is replaced by a gang of prison rapists and Paul Pfeiffer and Kevin Arnold's friendship is that of Tim Robbins' and Morgan Freeman's characters. Freeman's character Red is a wizened, cynical old convict who takes Robbins' character, Andy Dufresne, under his wing and into his friendship, and in the process Red finds that the surprising determination and hope Andy displays helps restore his own faith in life and not giving up. In a kind of sardonic way, it totally crystalizes for Red at the end of the movie when he faces his last parole hearing, and he sees that the system has been used to rob him of his hope and dignity rather than empower him to be a more complete person:

Freeman burns throughout the movie with a subdued intensity that makes you feel like he'd ooze Red's history if someone bumped him the wrong way. He at once understands almost everyone in the film, serving as the narrator, and yet his awed descriptions of his friend Andy help to show that no amount of experience can completely sponge away wonder and whimsy--even if we lose it in ourselves, it's possible to find it in the sincerity of others.

Movie Web Monday will continue next week with a new actor, picking up with some other prolific player from the last movie listed above.


  1. I'll have to check out Unforgiven... I can't believe I haven't seen it.

    1. Yeah, it's a classic. Clint Eastwood, Morgan Freeman, Gene Hackman, and Richard Harris all deliver excellent performances that could carry a film on their own. Richard Harris' character in particular is underplayed compared to the others, but it's still great and hints at a chasm-like depth of character waiting to be explored.