Sonic Cinema

Sounds, Visions and Insights by Brian Skutle


Grade : A+ Year : 1992 Director : Clint Eastwood Running Time : 2hr 11min Genre : ,
Movie review score

There’s nothing romantic about the Old West presented in Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven.” The old archetypes are long dead, replaced by more questionable values and morality. The lawman isn’t as noble, and the gunslinger has lived long enough to where his past has left him with guilt at the pain he’s caused. Now, the Man With No Name of Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns is the Man Who Regrets His Name, and he’d just assume disappear into legend than be remember for his sins. Unfortunately for him, it’s that past that is important to keeping his family afloat financially, as times have become tough, and America heads into a new phase.

As it was with his character in the film, William Munny, “Unforgiven,” and its story, represents a turning point for Eastwood as well. The film dominated the 1993 Academy Awards, winning the legendary actor Oscars for Directing and Best Picture (the latter over equally famous films “A Few Good Men” and “Malcolm X,” no less), and changing the course of his career from a steely stared leading man to one of the most important filmmakers of his, and any other, generation. He would stay in front of the camera most of the time, but his eye as a director grew stronger, and more assured, with films as varied as “Mystic River,” “Million Dollar Baby” (which garnered him the same Oscars in 2005), “Gran Torino,” “Flags of Our Fathers” and “Letters from Iwo Jima,” and “A Perfect World.” But over the years, it’s become clear that his best film remains “Unforgiven,” which was his last true Western, even though the ethos that all-American genre explored over the years is a driving force in many of his best films over the past 20 years.

The story is a simple one: William Munny was a ruthless killer in his younger days– a gunslinger who never question why he killed the people he did, and wasn’t above abusing animals, and drinking bottles of whiskey. However, his wife, now dearly-departed, cured him of those wicked ways, and he lives in solitude, raising his two, young children, and trying (and failing) to be a hog farmer. One day, a young gunslinger calling himself The Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett) comes riding with a proposition: going up to the town of Big Whiskey in Wyoming, and killing two cowboys who cut up a hooker’s face. The sheriff, Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman, who won an Oscar for his wicked performance), made a deal for compensation for her pimp (the saloon owner, Skinny), but the fellow hookers (led by Francis Fisher) aren’t satisfied, so they rustle up $1000 reward for the people who kill the cowboys. That’s the reward the Kid is looking to split with William. At first, he refuses, but seeing how dire his situation is at home, he relents, and goes to see his best friend, Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman), and catches up with the Kid, who reluctantly agrees to the three-way split. Meanwhile, as those three are riding, we get to see life in Big Whiskey, and understand what they’re riding into as Little Bill, who’s building a house just outside of town, rules with an iron fist. This is best illustrated when a legendary gunslinger, English Bob (Sir Richard Harris), comes to town with his biographer (Saul Rubinek), and ignores the sign which says “No Firearms” within the town.

The biographer, W.W. Beauchamp, helps illustrate one of the themes within David Webb Peoples’s superb screenplay. It’s an old saw that came into being in an earlier western (John Ford’s “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”), and is one of the most famous of all sayings: When the legend becomes fact, print the legend. When Bob and Beauchamp land themselves in jail, Little Bill, armed with one of Beauchamp’s books about English Bob’s exploits, sets the record straight about some of the stories, and shows how the print version was greatly exaggerated. The level of unreliability is paralleled, meanwhile, in the moments when the Kid is grilling William Munny about his exploits in his younger days. Will says he can’t remember, and often, when he gives into the Kid’s interest, he doesn’t give any accurate information, claiming he was too drunk to recall correctly. And yet, he confides in Ned that he sees so many ghosts of the people he killed, showing just how racked with guilt he is. This leads to another thematic thread in the film, and that’s the morality of these people who kill for a living. Some of them, like Little Bill and English Bob, are unrepentant in the villainy of their youth, while others, like William and Ned, are haunted by it, and have done what they can to redeem themselves. As both of them will learn by the end, however, there is no redemption for what they’ve done, and for Will in particular, there’s no turning back from the demons he’s tried to exorcise all these years. This is ultimately where the title comes from, and why it’s so fitting: they’re loved ones, if they have any, may have forgiven these outlaws, but a higher power (or karma, if you will) hasn’t, and all of them are punished by the end. Yes, Will is able to return to his children, but he’s not the same person he was when he left them. Whatever remorse he had for his old ways is gone, what with the death of Ned at the hands of Little Bill, and is replaced with a sense of right and wrong that, while dubious to us, makes sense to him. Indiscriminate death isn’t in his vocabulary anymore, but death with a purpose is acceptable. When he kills Little Bill, he understands this clearly, and so do we.

“Unforgiven” begins and ends the same way– a wide shot, beautifully composed by Jack N. Green, of William Munny standing at the grave of his wife, with a sunset in the background. That’s the only beauty we’ll see in the entire film, and it’s evocative not just of what great images the genre has given us over the years, but also signifies the end of Eastwood’s time with it, and this is the last western he’s ever made. Other people have tried to bring the western back, but without Clint Eastwood’s passion, and artistic eye, something has always felt off about the results. Nobody understands the genre, and its power, like Clint does, and it’s hard to imagine anyone else doing so in the coming years of cinema.

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