Unforgiven (1992) / Western-Drama
MPAA Rated: R for violence, language, and sexual situations
Running Time: 131 min.
Cast: Clint Eastwood, Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman, Jaimz Woolvett, Richard Harris, Saul Rubinek, Frances Fisher, Anna Levine, David Mucci, Rob Campbell, Anthony James
Director: Clint Eastwood
Screenplay: David Webb Peoples
Unforgiven is one of the rare films where I agree with the Academy Award voters, who proclaimed it the Best Picture of 1992. It ranks among the best Westerns of all time, almost a masterpiece in its own way, revisionist in the way the characters are portrayed. There is no "white hat/black hat" to tip us off as to who the good guy or bad guy is; there are no good or bad guys. Everyone is a shade of gray, trying to do what's best, but personal flaws and dire situations prevent them from living up to the standards of their intentions. Every frame breathes maturity, not only for Eastwood as a man, an actor, and a filmmaker, but also for the Western genre as a whole.
Clint Eastwood (The Gauntlet, The Outlaw Josey Wales) plays William Munny, once a notorious bad man, a killer of men, women, children, and anything else he didn't take a liking to. That is, until he met a woman who reformed him into being a better man. Many years have passed, and Munny's wife is long dead, leaving him to a life of farming and poverty with his two kids passing the time away quietly. Munny gets a visitor in the form of a young man out to claim a bounty for a couple of men who sliced up a woman's face, and although Munny's days as a killer are long gone, the reward proves too difficult to turn down. However, the town's sheriff, Little Bill (Hackman, Hoosiers) is going to make an example of those who have come to bounty kill, so when Munny and co. enter the arena, they embroil themselves in a quagmire of trouble.
The marriage of Eastwood and Westerns is a resounding success, from the Dollars trilogy to Pale Rider, there has been no greater presence since John Wayne than Clint, and no better an example for its continued existence. Unforgiven is a quiet Western, but also very profound, almost poetic, in its portrayal of a man sowing the seeds of his past to try to make his future a better existence. It's also a dark film, both literally and figuratively, with a noticeable lack of light during the gloomiest of moments thematically. Eastwood is in top form, fitting into the Western styles comfortably like a hand in an oft-used glove.
Eastwood isn't alone in this endeavor, as he surrounds himself with some of the best actors in the business. The normally affable Hackman is downright scary, with his twisted sense of justice, doing evil things with complete justification in his maintenance of the law. Freeman (The Shawshank Redemption) and Harris (Harry Potter) are both terrific in supporting roles, avoiding the traps that could easily have made their respective characters cartoonish. The editing is also top-notch, developing the story the right way, taking time to build up interest in the characters before sending them off into confrontations. The build-up is slow, but the tension is high, particularly when it approaches the dysphonic climax.
Unforgiven is a haunting film that gets better with age, seeming to mature along with the rest of us to become something truly profound. It's a Western that will be appealing even for those who normally don't like them, transcending the limitations of its genre without losing the conventions at its core. Reportedly, Eastwood kept the David Webb Peoples' (Blade Runner) script until he was old enough to play the part, and for that we can all be appreciative. He's not only older but he's also much wiser, and perhaps no other man could have crafted such an intricate masterwork on the meanings of redemption and retribution so beautifully.
©2005 Vince Leo