Unforgiven

1992, Movie, R, 130 mins

Review

UNFORGIVEN
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One of Eastwood's finest outings to date, an elegiac western that ironically undermines the conventions of the genre, only to deliver a finale as legendary as the shootout at the O.K. Corral.

Wyoming, the 1880s. William Munny (Clint Eastwood) is a former murderer who, transformed by the love of a good woman, gave up a life of indiscriminate killing to raise a family and try his hand at pig farming. With his wife now dead and his farm a failure, Munny is lured back into his old ways by the "Schofield Kid" (Jaimz Woolvett), an aspiring young gunfighter who brings the older man word of a bounty being offered in the frontier town of Big Whiskey. (After a cowboy slashed the face of a prostitute there, the woman's co-workers have offered a reward for the death of the attacker and his accomplice.) Munny refuses the young man's offer of partnership but later reconsiders, teaming up with his old sidekick Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman) and setting off to join Schofield. The journey will bring him up against "Little Bill" Daggett (Gene Hackman), the autocratic sheriff of Big Whiskey, as well as forcing him to acknowledge that killing is, in fact, what he does best.

It's easy to see why Eastwood was drawn by this script, written by David Webb Peoples (BLADE RUNNER) in the 1970s. Munny is descended in a direct line from Eastwood's two most famous characters: the Man with No Name, from his 60s Westerns with Sergio Leone; and Dirty Harry, the anti-hero of Don Siegel's cop thrillers. Leone's presence is most strongly felt in the revisionist content of UNFORGIVEN, while Siegel's influence is manifest in the film's lean, moody, no-nonsense style. Both of Eastwood's directorial mentors are acknowledged in the film's on-screen dedication, "to Sergio and Don."

The West of UNFORGIVEN is a place of few illusions, despite a mythology of heroism symbolized by Beauchamp (Saul Rubinek), a pulp biographer who has written heavily embellished accounts of the life of notorious gunslinger "English Bob" (marvelously played by Richard Harris). At one point, Little Bill ruptures this mythology by telling Beauchamp the inglorious real story behind one of the scenes described in his books--a pattern that is reprised throughout the film, as awe-struck tales of earlier heroes and exploits are undercut by cynical, down-to-earth dismissals. Eastwood as director finally turns this strategy on its head at the film's climax, when Munny pulls off a gunslinging feat of genuinely mythic proportions.

As with Leone's masterworks, UNFORGIVEN depicts a West driven solely by forces of commerce, not ideals of freedom or manifest destiny, with killing being Munny's sole marketable skill. Yet, just as Eastwood's occasional efforts to abandon his nihilist screen persona have been inconclusive, so is Munny haunted by his inability to escape the role society has decreed for him. Though he's the only protagonist left standing when the smoke clears, his story is the only one with the status of tragedy, his flaw being his very invincibility.

The cast is universally strong. Hackman, Freeman and Harris don't do anything they haven't done before, but the roles suit their personae to a degree where they approach archetypal status. The same applies to Eastwood, who casts himself as part of an ensemble rather than as the conscious star. And that's as it should be. With UNFORGIVEN, Eastwood achieves a new level of authority as a filmmaker and actor who has nothing to prove. leave a comment

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