Unforgiven (United States, 1992)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Clint Eastwood's reputation as a Hollywood icon was founded on two roles: The Man with No Name, who starred in three of Sergio Leone's "Spaghetti Westerns" (A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, The Good The Bad and the Ugly), and "Dirty" Harry Callahan, who made five appearances during the 1970s and 1980s. Unforgiven was seen by many as a reaction to (although not a repudiation of) the Dirty Harry character. To some, Dirty Harry was the embodiment of violence without consequences, of a shoot-first, ask-questions-later mentality. Unforgiven, however, approaches gunfights and death from a different vantage point, illustrating that there are real and permanent consequences to violence - consequences that become etched in the mind and the soul.

By the time Eastwood embarked upon making Unforgiven, he was established as a director as well as an actor. He was known as a risk-taker behind the camera, having made such offbeat pictures as Bird and White Hunter Black Heart. Eastwood followed up Unforgiven with the underrated A Perfect World and The Bridges of Madison County. Trying to find a pattern in his choices is like trying to find two identical snowflakes - an exercise in futility but not without its fascination. In fact, few actor/directors have had more versatile careers. Even Woody Allen, who rivals Eastwood when it comes to appearing in his own movies, cannot claim as impressive a resume.

Unforgiven is a Western made in an era when the popularity of Westerns was at a low ebb. Ironically, it became the second Western in three years to win the Best Picture Oscar. The other was Dances with Wolves in 1991. Both Unforgiven and Dances with Wolves, while being fundamentally different motion pictures, share a common quality: they are radically unlike the Westerns of old. Unforgiven looks like a Western. It has many of the conventions of a Western. But it doesn't feel like one. The violence is brutal, the sheriff isn't the good guy, and the story is saturated with moral ambiguity. That's not to say all the Westerns made in the '40s, '50s, and '60s were simplistic, but few evidence the ethical complexity that Eastwood embraces in Unforgiven.

The story opens with two branches that will eventually intersect. They're speeding freight trains on a collision course, although it takes a little while to figure that out. The small town of Big Whiskey is a typical frontier place, with a saloon, a whorehouse, an undertaker, a barbershop, and a few other small businesses. It's lorded over by Sheriff Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman), a man who loves two things: the Law and building his house. He has a sadistic streak but is incorruptible. In another movie, he might be the hero, but in Eastwood's view of the world, things aren't that simple. One day, there's an incident at the brothel. A drunk and irate customer repeatedly slashes a prostitute (Anna Thomson) across the face. Little Bill deals out the punishment: as reparation for the damage of "property," the attacker must pay the prostitute's handler a certain number of horses. There's no jail time, no whipping, and no recompense to the injured woman. Her fellow workers pool their money and send out the word that they'll pay $1000 to any assassin who eliminates the offender.

Hundreds of miles away, the former infamous killer and recent widower William Munny (Eastwood) is struggling to raise his two young children by making a living as a farmer. When "The Schofield Kid" (Jaimz Woolvett) arrives looking for a partner to accompany him to Big Whiskey to earn the reward, William is initially reluctant. Later, however, after taking a hard look at his prospects, he changes his mind. He's not the man he once was, but he needs the money. So he recruits his old partner, Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman), and sets off after the Schofield Kid.

While William, Ned, and the Kid are on their way, Unforgiven pauses to provide a side story. Gunslinger English Bob (Richard Harris) arrives in Big Whiskey with his biographer, W.W. Beauchamp (Saul Rubinek), in tow. He's there to deliver justice and collect the reward but Little Bill teaches him about the virtues of obeying the law and the folly of vigilantism. He also provides an object lesson to Beauchamp about the difficulty of killing. Then, to see the record straight, he deconstructs English Bob's legend by revealing some unsavory truths.

Thus are the players and their motivations established. Because the viewer is invited into the story through the viewpoint of William Munny, he is naturally the most sympathetic character. It is important not to forget, however, that he is a seasoned killer who, in his day, murdered women and children in cold blood. And, while Little Bill may have a streak of cruelty running through his veins, he's a man of justice. One of Unforgiven's assets is the way it overturns conventions, taking the man who is typically the hero and making him the villain, while transforming the traditional bad guy into a sympathetic protagonist. This is much like what Kevin Costner did with Dances with Wolves, where he inverted the "Cowboys and Indians" institution.

Unforgiven is about the price of killing and violence. Munny's soul has been so soiled that one wonders whether he's past the point of redemption. Initially, he fights against being drawn back into his old ways, insisting that "I'm not the same person" but, in the end, he reverts to what he was. For the viewer, who sympathizes with Munny and wants to believe he can change, it's a sad transformation. The climactic gunfight, which in many Westerns would be a moment of triumph, plays out here with a note of sadness and resignation. Meanwhile, there's Ned, who discovers at a critical moment that he can't return to the patterns of old. And The Schofield Kid, who idealizes killing from a far, finds it's less appealing when experienced firsthand. Munny has the film's most memorable quote when he comments: "It's a hell of a thing, killing a man. Take away all he's got and all he's ever gonna have."

Unforgiven's acting is first-rate. It earned a Supporting Actor Oscar for Hackman and a Lead Actor nomination for Eastwood. One could argue that both Morgan Freeman and Richard Harris also deserved Supporting Actor consideration. Hackman does an excellent job bringing out the good and the bad in Little Bill, refusing to allow the character to become a one-dimensional antagonist. His standout scene is the one in which he instructs Beauchamp about the real Old West. Eastwood, meanwhile, personifies the weariness of a man of violence who's trying to fight against his nature. A lot of the conflict is internal but we catch enough glimpses of it to know it's going on. We also see the point at which the surrender of the new man to the old one occurs.

The set design and Jack Green's cinematography (both nominated) provide viewers with visual cues they will be conversant with from a genre whose conventions are deeply rooted in American cinema. The dusty, barren streets and ramshackle buildings are necessary to impart a sense of familiarity that the storyline takes pains to deconstruct. Our first views of Big Whiskey establish a set of expectations, re-enforced by the way the town has been erected (on location, not on a set) and the way the early scenes are shot, that are necessary for Unforgiven's approach to have its full impact. Eastwood chose a veteran crew to work on this film and the resulting technical excellence is visible in every frame.

Despite its dark nature, Unforgiven is sprinkled with humor. Some is of the gallows variety, such as Munny's comment after a shooting: "Well, you sure killed the hell outta that guy." Little Bill refers to English Bob not as the "Duke of Death" but as the "Duck of Death." And Munny repeatedly has trouble mounting his temperamental nag. Moments such as these keep Unforgiven from becoming too grim because, ultimately, this is an unsettling motion picture. Whether or not it represents Eastwood's best work as a director will remain a point of debate. There are plenty of other fine movies in his filmography to rally behind. Two things are clear, however. Unforgiven was one of a few films instrumental in re-shaping the way movie-goers thought of the Western. And none of Eastwood's films did a better job of distancing the actor from his Dirty Harry alter-ego.

Unforgiven (United States, 1992)

Run Time: 2:11
U.S. Release Date: 1992-08-07
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1