Film Review

Unforgiven (1992)

IMDB link
Running time: 2h 10min
Directed by Clint Eastwood
Written by David Webb Peoples
Starring Clint Eastwood, Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman

In 1992 Clint Eastwood directed and starred in Unforgiven; a western in which an aged and reformed gunslinger decides to take on one last job in his old days. Eastwood was 62 years old, and thus the perfect age to play William Munny, “killer of women and children”, in the genre that made him a movie legend. Unforgiven is not a traditional western: it takes the genre and shows it in a more cynical (or realistic) new light. There is no heroism or epic adventure on display here, and the romanticism of the old west is stripped down to a minimum. As much as it is a great western, it is also a commentary about the genre itself, and of Eastwood’s role in the genre’s history. The film won 4 Oscars (Best Picture, Best Actor in a Supporting Role [Gene Hackman], Best Director, and Best Film Editing [Joel Cox]) and is now deservedly considered a classic.

Unforgiven can, of course, be enjoyed as a standalone film, but in order to truly appreciate it, one needs to understand the broader context – i. e. have seen plenty of westerns from past decades, especially those by Clint. Films such as the iconic Dollars-trilogy by Sergio Leone (A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965), The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966) made Eastwood’s career (along with other tough-guy genres, of course). Thus, the western is perhaps the genre Clint Eastwood is most known for. Hang ‘Em High (1968), The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976), and Pale Rider (1985), are some other prominent examples from his decades-spanning involvement. In these films Clint often plays a mysterious antihero who lets his actions speak louder than words. He is out for himself first and foremost, but he does bad things to bad people and ends up helping the weak and the good in the process. It is difficult to think of a more iconic actor in the genre – Eastwood is the face of westerns from the 1960s to the 1990s. The tone of most of these films was adventurous and romantic, though grittier than in the multitude of movies of the previous icon of the genre, John Wayne (1907-1979). Overall, Hollywood had presented the old west as a romantic time, where violence was prevalent, but where the bad guy, wearing black, lost in the end, and the good guys eventually triumphed. With this mini-history paragraph done, I should note that I am not an authority on westerns or film history in general, so some of what I said here might be incorrect or leaving something relevant out.

There is some great cinematography and beautiful locales in Unforgiven.

In Unforgiven the romantic and mysterious side of the western is shed: William Munny is not an enigmatic antihero, but a former drunk and a notorious murderer who despises his past – or what little he can remember of it. This is a wider theme in the film, as the other prominent old gunslingers, sheriff Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman) and infamous mercenary English Bob (Richard Harris), are equally despicable, violent men. There is nothing heroic or admirable about them; they are stone-cold killers who somehow, by ruthlessness or perhaps by sheer luck, managed to outlive most of their rivals. Munny’s old partner, Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman), is not given much of a backstory, but if he was a friend of young William Munny then he cannot be a model citizen either. There are no characters in this story who are “pure” – the old west is ruled by the strong, but the weak are no angels either. The prominent female characters of the film, save Munny’s dead wife, are whores – not that they are bad people, per se – they do what they must to survive in a harsh world. A tale such as this does not need clear cut heroes or villains – an approach that was not exactly revolutionary (as I said, Eastwood often played morally grey antiheroes) – but it is still refreshing. Based on his actions in the film, the old William Munny is not evil – at the beginning of the movie, the job he agrees to is the killing of two men, but the contract is on men who probably deserve it. Or do they? That is something that the characters of the film wrestle with, and what the audience needs to decide for themselves. Overall, it is a more mature film than most of what came before.

William Munny (Clint Eastwood) and Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman), the old partners

As I already stated, the film was made at the perfect time when Clint was just the right age for the role – old enough, but not quite geriatric. The casting overall is near perfect – Morgan Freeman, Gene Hackman, and Richard Harris just ooze charisma and talent. Saul Rubinek is good as the cowardly writer of English Bob’s autobiography, but I found the character he plays a bit too ridiculous – the scene where he wets himself is particularly cringeworthy. Everyone else does an okay job, in my opinion, but they cannot outshine the charismatic old men this movie revolves around. The dialogue is absolutely fantastic, and the screen legends do a great job with it – I especially enjoyed Gene Hackman’s performance (as I did in Royal Tenenbaums), that man sure can act. The writing is overall on point.

Gene Hackman is great as Little Bill Daggett, the sheriff with somewhat questionable methods and morals
English Bob (Richard Harris) and W. W. Beauchamp (Saul Rubinek) run into some trouble.

The cinematography is great and the scenery is beautiful, and the viewer is given ample time to appreciate it. This is one aspect in which the film still retains some of the romanticism attached to the old west – there is real beauty in the nature, if not in the people. The music is pretty good as well, but not overly memorable. There are not many things “wrong” about Unforgiven – but there are a few. For example, it seems to be raining almost every time something bad happens, and thunder accompanies the delivery of the lines of the characters perhaps a bit too well for it to not be noticeable in a bad way. This might not even register to all viewers, or be too much of a negative, but I have seen the movie many times now, and minor annoyances such as this do take away from the experience. Then again, it would also be jarring if the lightning were to disrupt the dialogue so the audience could not hear what was said. But perhaps it needn’t to rain all the time during scenes of high dramatic tension? There are a couple of other minor annoyances I have, such as some unrealistic gunplay and its consequences (similar to the famous scene in Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2012)), which is a bit more offensive to my tastes because the film tries to be more realistic than your standard western. But nothing is perfect, and these are only minor flaws.

Mmmm… whiskey.

I was going to spoil a little bit of the end here to make a point, but I thought better of it, in case there is actually someone reading this who has not seen the movie and intends to do so. But I will say a little bit about it without quoting the dialogue: there is a tortured quality to William Munny. If I had read more Shakespeare perhaps I could make some comparisons there. There is no mystery to him – he might be an older version of Eastwood’s classic man with no name character, but he does not have the same aura of adventure and cool about him. This is a dark, tragic tale – not an exciting adventure like The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (which, don’t get me wrong, is a great film, of course). At least until the very end, Unforgiven shows that drinking whiskey and killing people with guns is not cool – which is a statement that westerns of old did not relay. I made a comparison between Al Pacino’s Scarface (1983) and Carlito’s Way (1993) in my earlier review on Carlito, where I stated that it tries hard to be a more mature version of Scarface, but perhaps does not completely succeed in this. Unforgiven succeeds in this regard more definitively. While it does, perhaps, succumb to the tropes in the end, it is done exceedingly well. There is another parallel between Carlito and Unforgiven – both feature a young, aggressive “punk” character who tries very hard to act tough and is quite annoying to watch. Unforgiven pulls this off better as well – Jaimz Woolvett as “The ‘Schofield Kid’” is more believable and relatable than John Leguizamo as “Benny Blanco from the Bronx” – and not as annoying.

Don’t mess with Munny

For many years Unforgiven was one of my favorite westerns, if not one of my favorite films of all time. I still enjoy watching it, but I think I might have seen it a few too many times now to enjoy it as much, so its placement in my list of great films has fallen. The flaws are more noticeable, and the highlights are not as effective anymore. Still, it remains a great film, and I am sure I will rewatch it at some point again. The characters, the performances, and the dialogue are fantastic, but they do not carry the same punch when not experienced fresh. But this could be said of any film, and it is obviously not a flaw. My girlfriend, who I forced to watch this film, has next to no experience with westerns, and was not overly impressed. But I do recommend Unforgiven for pretty much anyone even slightly interested in cinema – not that there are many people like that around who have not seen it.

Rating: 8.0 / 10
Times I had seen this film prior to this viewing: 4 or 5
Would I want to rewatch this film? After a while, assuredly yes

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