UNFORGIVEN (1992)

  • Director: Clint Eastwood
  • Writer: David Webb Peoples
  • Starring: Clint Eastwood, Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman, Richard Harris, Jaimz Woolvett, Saul Rubinek, Frances Fisher, Anna Thomson, Rob Campbell, Anthony James
  • Accolades: AFI 2007 Top 100 List (#68), 4 Oscars (Best Picture, Best Director – Clint Eastwood, Best Supporting Actor – Gene Hackman, Best Film Editing), 5 additional Oscar nominations (Best Actor – Clint Eastwood, Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction, Best Sound)
  • Where to Watch: Stream with subscription on Showtime app, buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV

There are revisionist westerns, and then there is Unforgiven, which is so determined in puncturing the myths of the Old West that it literally makes one of its characters a writer who finds out that all his stories are wrong. It even extends to how the characters talk, using a simplistic dialect that is so far removed from how movie characters talk that it doesn’t sound right. It is a movie where the outlaws are the closest thing to heroes and the sheriff is the villain. It’s also a movie where pretty much every character is always putting on a front. Many pretend to be bad-asses when they’re not, while Clint Eastwood’s William Munny is hiding how badass he is behind a facade of normalcy until the final minutes. To me it feels more like an exercise than a movie. Yet there are lots of people who watch this movie and get other things out of it, and I’m not sure I understand those people.

Clint Eastwood produced, directed, and starred in Unforgiven, not to mention writing parts of the score. He won Oscars for the first two and was propelled into the highest echelon of Hollywood, not just as a box office draw but creatively, too. The movie is set on the same Wyoming frontier as Shane, but for most part it deglamorizes it, just like everything else in this movie. This is a movie of single trees on drab, open plains, and the town of Big Whiskey, Wyoming seems incredibly dirty, as it likely would have been. While Shane was shot on location at Jackson Hole, Unforgiven was shot up on the Alberta prairie, which is why a lot of the background cast is made up of Canadian actors.

Eastwood stars as William Munny, an aging former gunfighter who now raises pigs on a dirty farm with two fresh-faced kids. His wife, who cured him of “killing” and alcoholism, died years earlier, but he has a tendency to talk about her in the present tense. One day a young whippersnapper referring to himself as “the Schofield Kid” (Jaimz Woolvett, in the only one of his roles any of you have seen, I’m willing to bet) comes to see Munny with a proposal to partner on a job to collect a reward by killing two cowboys who “cut up a whore.” Eastwood goes to get his old partner, Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman) to help, much to the Kid’s dismay. As it turns out, the various prostitutes took a collection to avenge the unsubtly named Delilah (Anna Thomson), but their town is run with an iron fist by “Little Bill Daggett” (Gene Hackman), who allows no guns within the town limits and isn’t afraid to make an example of anyone who crosses him. 

Things unfold as you might expect in a “normal” western, after a fashion. The men are killed, but one of them is shot in the stomach and takes a long time to die, screaming. Ned can’t bring himself to pull the trigger and is left shaking. The second man is shot by the Kid in an outhouse, leaving the Kid crying afterwards under a tree. He hands Eastwood his gun, saying he’s never killed anyone and never will again. Ned, meanwhile, is captured by Little Bill and killed, leading Eastwood to go after the Sheriff and his men in a climactic showdown. Even then, he seems to be more acting a part than anything else.

This story takes place in a world of monosyllabic bluntness, sometimes to comical effect. Eastwood’s most famous lines, the closest the movie gets to seeming “written,” still fit into this mold. “It’s a hell of a thing, killing a man. You take away all he is, and all he’s ever gonna be.” This can be contrasted with English Bob (Richard Harris), who arrives in town with a “biographer” (Saul Rubinek) following him around, opining to anyone who will listen that having a Queen is better than having a President. He exits without ever meeting our heroes, beaten within an inch of his life by Little Bill. The writer stays behind to write about Little Bill, instead.

Unforgiven was, perhaps improbably, a major hit, and could be considered the first western since Cimarron in 1931 to win the Best Picture Oscar (unless you count Dances With Wolves, which I would argue is only really a western in setting as opposed to story or structure). Hackman also won an Oscar for his scenery-chewing performance as Little Bill. With some distance, the movie has taken a place, not as some sort of neo-version of its genre, but alongside the “classic” westerns. I would say this is strange, since the whole point of Unforgiven seems to be that it’s not like those other movies. It is certainly more bloody, with more swearing, but that isn’t really what I mean. It’s more that, if this movie isn’t rebelling against older westerns, I don’t understand what the point of it is.

As for me, I don’t find the idea that the Old West “wasn’t really like” how it was portrayed in old movies and TV shows to particularly be a revelation. I like westerns for some of the same reasons I like science fiction shows where they go to different planets and stuff. The idea of storytelling at a remove, and using that remove to use allegory and metaphor, is interesting to me. If you remove the remove, in the name of “realism” or whatever else, you lose a lot of the point for me. So what I’m trying to say is that Unforgiven is fine, as a movie, but I’m not sure I get out of it what a lot of people do. It takes all kinds.

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