Unforgiven is a dark and haunting film in what can be considered Clint Eastwood’s ‘finest hour’. A revisionist western, set in the 1880s that serves as the final culmination of Eastwood’s revisionist western trilogy, follows the journey of William Munny (Eastwood), a struggling pig farmer and widower with two young children with a dark past as a violent killer. After two cowboys scar a prostitute a reward is offered by her fellow whores for the death of the two men. Soon Munny is on the hunt and is later joined by Ned (Morgan Freeman) and the young, blind ‘Schofield Kid’ (Jaimz Woolvett). The stage is set for what is perhaps the most gritty, realistic and best of Eastwood’s westerns.
The skilled acting performances by the cast of brilliant actors along with the directing, that only of man of Eastwood’s caliber can provide, make Unforgiven stand out as the finest of Eastwood revisionist westerns (Pale Rider, The Outlaw Josey Wales). We are confronted with characters who are both capable of the kindest, and at the same time vilest, of deeds. The black hat, white hat distinction of the characters of western genres of old are thrown out the window in favor of gritty, violent, morally ambiguous characters that are much more in line with the realities of the human condition. Gene Hickman gives a superb performance as Sheriff ‘Little Bill’ Dagert, both champion of law and order in his town as well as a violent sadist. William Munny provides the image of a changed man, a man who has redeemed himself. However as the film progresses the façade of a changed man is lifted in a violent manner with the murder of one of the wanted men. The film carefully reveals the true nature of Munny in layers until we are confronted with the true nature of his past “I’ve killed woman, children and just about anything that moved at some point”. He is perhaps the hardest protagonist, to warm to, and Eastwood does a great job at challenging our perspectives on film heroes.
The supporting cast do a good job of adding extra weight to the film. There are no meaningless throw away characters that exist only as target practice. They all have a point and Eastwood fits them together in the story like a master watchmaker. Notable performances include Richard Harris as ‘English Bob’, a gun fighter and fierce monarchist “who worked for the railroad shooting Chinamen.” Bob travels with his biographer W.W Beauchamp (Saul Rubineck). Bob along with his biographer act as an amusing comment of the creation and permeation of the western myth. Morgan Freeman lends his heavyweight reputation as Williams’s old gunfighter comrade ‘Ned’. Freeman does an admirable job as portraying Ned as a man past his prime and serves as an excellent reminder to William that they are not getting younger. James Woolvelt as the ‘Schofield Kid’ holds up well, his character being both physically blind as well as blind to the realities of killing a man “(Munny)You ever killed a man before?
(Kid)Hell I’ve killed at least 50 guys”. He serves as a reminder of how receiving the Mark of Cain can change and destroy a man.
Clint Eastwood’s goal with Unforgiven was to expose the myth of the western genre; the westerns of John Wayne, Lee Marvin and even himself and to show how the west was really won. There are no fair quick draw stand offs (A man is killed while taking a crap) and killing is often a slow (and for the audience) harrowing experience. Perhaps one of the most amusing and memorable moments comes when Munny shoots the unarmed Pimp, much to Little Bills disgust “Hell you just killed an unarmed man!”
“Well he should have armed himself.”
Eastwood rams home the realities of killing further, a young cowboy dies slowly begging for water, he doesn’t fly off his horse like so many a man in Eastwood’s older westerns. Perhaps the most memorable quotes on killing come from Eastwood’s character himself “It’s a helluva thing killing a manâ€¦You take away all he’s had and all he’s ever gonna have”. In exposing the western myth Eastwood excels par excellence.
The technical aspect of the film adds to the western experience in a way one would expect of an Eastwood film. The dark moody lighting contrast with the open sweeping landscapes under a brilliant blue sky. The sets and costumes are authentic and familiar to any western film buff which adds an interesting contrasts to the revisionist context of the film. All the technical brilliance comes together to suck the audience into a believable looking film. The lighting itself is well used, especially in the way that it darkens with the darkening of Eastwood’s character. Music is kept to a minimal, no spaghetti style pieces blare at us during a stand off, the rain provides a much better musical score to the films finale.
For the audience this film forces us to reflect on ourselves and the realities of the darkness of our souls. We are all naturally violent; the film just highlights this fact with a blow from a slug of a .44. Perhaps Eastwood is asking for forgiveness not as a character but as a director. “Go ahead punk make my day” has been replaced instead with a whimpering, bleeding young man begging for water. If I can think of one gripe about the film it is perhaps that it takes a little too long at making its point.
Unforgiven is a brilliant film. It caters to Eastwood’s core fans while at the same time attracting the more intelligent and reflective film goer. Those who enjoyed the ‘Good the Bad and the Ugly’ will enjoy this film as much as the filmgoer who enjoys a serious crafted experience.