Monday, 13 February 2012
Starring: Clint Eastwood, Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman, Richard Harris, Saul Rubinek, Frances Fisher
By Alan Bacchus
This was the career turning point for Mr. Eastwood after two decades of decent, though ultimately unmemorable, feature films. From Play Misty for Me to The Rookie, Clint had made 15 films, but none with the power and gravitas of Unforgiven.
Much like the story of Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, the script for Unforgiven was one Eastwood optioned in the early ‘80s, but he didn’t make the film until he was old enough to play the lead role. He knew the importance of the film for the genre and in his career, so timing would be the key to its success. After a decade of only a handful of Westerns and with the new decade starting with the revisionist Western and multi-Oscar winner Dances With Wolves, perhaps it signaled that this was the right time for Unforgiven. And perhaps it was also Eastwood's self-acknowledged maturity in Hollywood that indicated it was time.
Acclaimed as a watershed film of the genre, a Western that ‘demystified’ the myths of the era and the tropes of the genre, Unforgiven is a violent, angry film about a former gunslinger’s journey of atonement through the hit job from a group of women prostitutes avenging the brutal disfigurement of one of their own. Back in 1992 I admired the film, but it was no masterpiece. 20 years later, I’m still of the same thought. The fact is it's not really a landmark film. Sam Peckinpah’s whole career demystified the genre, as did idiosyncratic efforts from Robert Altman (McCabe and Mrs. Miller). These films showed, as Unforgiven does, the frontier as anti-romantic and unheroic.
Unforgiven works best as a razor sharp revenge story, playing into and around the familiar themes, characters and ‘rules’ of the genre. As William Munny, Eastwood is deified as a rogue family man caring for his family on his ranch. His wife is not present, but he has two kids. When approached about doing a hit job on a group of nefarious troglodytes, who, in a fit of rage, cut up a poor town whore, Munny reluctantly accepts, internally conflicted based on a past with details that are unclear but point to a ‘history of violence’.
In town, the prostitutes are sick of the ill treatment from their boorish male superiors, specifically their despicable ‘owner’, who claims to have lost potential earnings from the disfigurement and demands ‘repayment’ from the perpetrators. Gene Hackman’s character, the town sheriff Little Bill Hackett, is complex. While he’s positioned as Munny’s chief antagonist, he’s at first shown, like Munny, as a humble family man, tending to his handcrafted home and reluctantly pulled into adjudicating the matter at the whorehouse. Gradually, when the cards are placed on the table, he sides against the moral right and thus comes to odds with Munny, the vengeful killer.
The film ends with one of the genre’s great scenes, the dramatic rain soaked confrontation between Munny and Little Bill. It’s a stand-off as tense as any duel in Western cinema. The rich cinematography of Clint’s then go-to man, Jack N. Green, is key to creating the atmosphere of fear and violence in that room at that moment.
This is why Unforgiven should be cherished as a simple, well told genre film from a venerable old master.
Unforgiven is available on Blu-ray from Warner Home Entertainment.