Release Date: August 7th, 1992 MPAA Rating: R
Director: Clint Eastwood Actors: Clint Eastwood, Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman, Richard Harris, Jaimz Woolvett, Saul Rubinek, Frances Fisher, Anna Thomson, Beverley Elliott
n astoundingly powerful tale of a strangely anti-Old West, multilayered outlaw, “Unforgiven” is one of the finest revisionist epics ever brought to the big screen. It’s shaped around a setting (and, indeed, a genre) in which the standards of heroic gunfighting and cool lawlessness have nearly died out – almost as if a companion piece to “The Wild Bunch” or “Monte Walsh,” or the numerous other pictures focused on the dying breeds of a transitional era. But it’s much more than a mere modernistic Western; it’s a masterful examination of morals, redemption, revenge (and the contrasting characters to represent those motifs), and the analyzation and consequences of murder. Winner of four Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director (for Clint Eastwood, who essentially sums up all the varying shades of cowboys he’s played throughout his career), “Unforgiven” is a roaring thriller, an instant classic, and one of the best features of the decade.
Now living an uneventful, withdrawn life with his two children on a pig farm, former killer William Munny (Clint Eastwood) is propositioned by young gunslinger “The Schofield Kid” (Jaimz Woolvett) to join in on a bounty offered for the lives of two men who cut up a prostitute (Anna Thomson). Reluctant at first, but desperately in need of cash, Will gets out the gun he set aside for eleven years and saddles his ancient horse – which he can barely mount. Munny is weathered and out of shape, exhibiting a brittle exterior and a softer spirit, achieved by discarding the whiskey, cruelty, and wickedness of his past – thanks to being civilized by his wife, who has since passed away. But behind his tired eyes is a sense of unresolved duty; perhaps he wishes to earn divine forgiveness for his past sins, or maybe he hungers for an opportunity to abandon moralization for further violence – this time as a vigilante against corrupt law enforcement. His wife may only have served to delay an inevitable resurgence of his intemperate disposition.
Will insists on taking along his old partner Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman), resulting in an unlikely trio riding out to the town of Big Whiskey, Wyoming to execute the two cowboys responsible for the assault. When they discover that the town is governed by ruthless sheriff “Little Bill” Daggett (Gene Hackman) and his faithful henchmen, Will, Ned, and The Schofield Kid begin to realize they might not have what it takes to complete the mission. But just below the surface of Munny’s reformation is a looming rampage of barbarous vengeance, itching to dole out the only brand of justice a true killer knows.
While “Unforgiven” is heavy on drama and visual action, the film still carefully – and exhilaratingly – explores the mindsets of the would-be murderers, the effects on their consciences, and the resolve necessary to take a life. The entire spectrum of killers is revealed through the steady transformations of Will, Ned, the Kid, and even Little Bill and subplot character English Bob (Richard Harris), a notorious bounty hunter ironically accompanied by his personal biographer, W.W. Beauchamp (Saul Rubinek), who, engrossed in documenting histories of violence, weaves tall tales into printed facts. The Schofield Kid starts off anxious to spill blood, highly revering Will’s dark reputation; Ned assumes their skills will easily resurface, but is unsure of his willingness to kill again; Little Bill just wants to maintain order in his town, blind to his own version of tyranny; and Munny weighs the repercussions and revelations of reverting back to his former ways.
All under the umbrella of a simple Western setting, the film further examines remorse, reputation, the use of exaggeration in recounting events, the faultiness of memories, notoriousness, and the “Rashomon” effect of perspectives – all related to killing. It’s slow-burn, with comprehensive character development (going so far as to demonstrate both the evils of the villain and his normalcy, with his hopes of building a house and a porch to smoke his pipe, sip coffee, and watch the sunset) and subtle hints toward the thunderous climax, which itself is incredibly understated. There are no continual duels, shootouts, or hold-ups; instead, there’s the violent nature of humankind, personified flawlessly by a once-unstoppable hellion succumbing to forgotten ways in order to right the wrongs of an untimely demise – through that basest of emotions: hatred.
Eastwood’s portrayal of Munny is absolutely inspiring, blending together many of the personas that made him famous, further aided by unforgettable scripting by David Webb Peoples (“Blade Runner,” “Twelve Monkeys”). Munny is the ultimate cross between Eastwood’s famous “Man With No Name,” the outlaw Josey Wales, the preacher from “Pale Rider,” and a sprinkling of Dirty Harry (and perhaps every other role Eastwood took on under the direction of his mentors Don Siegel and Sergio Leone), but brings depth well beyond the characters typically found in such avengement-themed neo-Westerns. He’s an incredibly complex antihero and one of the most riveting, perfectly cinematic gunslingers in the history of film – a fitting central figure for a potent piece of moviemaking.
– Mike Massie