By Elisha Silk (Houston, Texas)
“I don’t deserve this… to die like this. I was building a house.” (Gene Hackman)
Unforgiven swept up the attention of the waking world in 1992 for multiple reasons: an all-star cast; Clint Eastwood returning to the genre that engineered his early fame & image — as both film director and star; and a superior storyline transcending the status quo of the western anti-hero model.
So why watch this movie today?
Unforgiven won four academy awards, including best picture, and not just out of trend like so many forgettable academy winning films parading the cultural fads and socio-political flavors of the year, over the purity of art and cinematic achievement.
It is a western of grit, dirt, violence, shifting perspectives of good and evil, and unadulterated, psychological drama. With a strangely beautiful, yet prosaic narrative, the film challenges the romanticism of the old west, the moral platitudes of both the law and the outlaw-gunslinger, and the consequences and cost of murder and revenge. Then throw in the surprising strength and vindictiveness of frontier prostitutes, the exaggerations of western legends unmasked, the impact of written media and journalism, and the indignity and cruelty of death by firearms.
Yes, there’s a whole lot of ole’ wild western defamation going on in one story.
Eastwood plays a reformed outlaw and murderer; a legendary killer who is now a poor widower with children to care for. In fact, one of the more clever, unexplored aspects of the story is the idea of redemption through love, even though we never even get a glimpse of the deceased wife who turned William Munny’s cold-blooded heart around.
Munny and his old partner, Morgan Freeman, resume the roles of assassins along with an arrogant young buck who claims to be a killer for the promise of reward money. Their bounty involves the revenge killings of cowboys complicit in the laceration/scarring of a prostitute’s face.
So Eastwood and Freeman put back on their callous killing pants for one last job and payout.
Gene Hackman plays an amoral sheriff whose sole concern is order within his town – the town housing the saloon and prostitutes who put out the bounty on the cowboys. Flawlessly portrayed, he pulls off the role with such conviction that we’re left to wonder whether he’s good or bad, just or unjust. I suppose an argument could be made for both twists of the coin.
Unforgiven redefines the western genre with intelligence and austerity, while at the same time capturing all the violence, lawlessness, spine, and bravado of the traditional wild west film, and repackaging it with a depth of sorrow and realism.
On a side note, if ever you are interested in reading a screenplay, my recommendation is Unforgiven by David Web Peoples (whose credits include Bladerunner and 12 Monkeys). The writing is dynamic and fluid, and is a strong example of the written blueprint for a superior film.
“Deserve’s got nothing to do with it.” (Clint Eastwood)