I have found great pleasure in my IMDB challenge, but none greater than the movie I am about to review: Unforgiven. This film will mark a fitting beginning to what I call my Clint Eastwood cycle, which would concentrate in all of the movies that he has been a part of that are also in the TOP 250 films at IMDB.
I have already watched “Gran Torino” more than a month ago and I have struggled to find the right ideas to talk about the film, but given the fact that I will be concentrating on Eastwood in the next few weeks, it is definitely time to also give a review of that film in an upcoming post I am already preparing.
Now back to Unforgiven….
I very much doubt Eastwood will ever do a better film and in the coming lines I will try to explain why.
Unforgiven feels like a great Rock n’ Roll song. For most of its running time, it remains an object of mystery, muted in its reach at first, gaining power and punch as it slowly unravels in order to finally open itself to the audience in a crescendo of violence that seemed both unreachable at first but always unavoidable.
Clint Eastwood is not only the director of this exquisite film, but he also stars as the movie’s central and most interesting character. He plays William Munny, a retired assassin of the Old West who, after having married, tried and succeeded for some time to change his ways and raise two children with very modest means. The film opens with a simple shot that pays homage to a time before ours (and to previous Westerns) where a man, probably Eastwood, stands next to a beautiful tree digging the final resting place of his young wife who had, as the film explains in two simple paragraphs, just perished due to small pox.
Along with his story, the film presents us with the town of Big Whiskey, an outpost that is typical of the Wild West. The whorehouse has been visited by two foreign cowboys, one of which, in a fit of rage, has cut up the beautiful face of one of the “whores”. He is stopped only by the feel of a gun next to his temple carried by the owner of the establishment who ties them up and waits for the town’s sheriff to impart some justice. It is at this moment that we meet “Little Bill”, masterfully played by Gene Hackman. He quickly appears to be a figure that demands respect. Bill stands with confidence, knowing exactly what he will do even before he takes a good look at the two men. He deals a magnanimous hand, setting the criminals free once they commit to compensate the owner with a few horses.The only voice that rises and protests to the glaring injustice is “Strawberry Alice”, the “matriarch whore”, fearlessly played by Frances Fisher. Her protests are dismissed by men but not quenched, as we soon learn her women have impressively gathered a thousand dollars to reward anyone who avenges them and kills the two cowboys.
Eastwood’s Old Wild West in Unforgiven is different in that it presents us with characters that have lived and gotten used to the terrible cruelty of the West, who now face extinction as a more lawful and organized modernity seems to creep around them without notice. Gene Hackman is the man that brings order with an iron fist, but also with a certain degree of equanimity gained by his many years of experience and his calm yet fearsome demeanor. When he learns the whores have posted a reward asking for the killing of two cowboys, he quickly focuses on keeping Big Whiskey free of assasins who would surely come to collect the bounty. No longer this is the Old West of duels and self-imposed justice. This has become the West of the sheriff and the American government that is clearly represented by the flags hanging on both sides of the County Office.
In this context, Eastwood meets a young cowboy self-nicknamed “The Schofield Kid”, played by a debutant Jaimz Woolvett. Here is a new breed of cowboy, eager to claim a bounty not fully knowing the risks that are involved with a killing. He comes to Munny to propose him half of the bounty if he joins him in this quest, having discovered that the old man who can’t even manage to organize a herd of hogs was once a feared gunslinger. Munny has seemingly lost his strength and poise, and with marriage, he also seems to have lost his desire for “meanness” and “wickedness”. First he dismisses the bashful Kid, but later comes to his senses and decides to join him not before enlisting his old partner, played by the everlasting Morgan Freeman.
There is obviously a need for money as poverty has taken over and defined Munny’s life for the last few years. He constantly repeats he has long since retired from his old habits, quitting Whiskey and staying away from his gunslinger past as long as money allowed him to. He repeats he is now “a changed man” over the course of the movie, almost as if he needs to remind himself that he no longer has it in him to kill for money.We start suspecting though (with some skepticism) that Munny does have it in him still and that, beyond the bounty, he secretly desires to prove himself, even when all we see is a shadow of his former glory, aged by the harshness of the Old West.
With Unforgiven, Eastwood seems to have become a part of the scenery. He seems to fit in the desert. Munny feeds from the scenery as if he were a true part of it. It is a quality that Eastwood has gained, as an actor, not only with his age, but with the experience given by the many Western classics he was a part of. With Unforgiven he has clearly decided to close a chapter in his career, presenting us with an Old Wild West that is changing its ways, with seemingly washed-up old timers that are no longer good for a fight.
Munny seems to drag the group’s feet, but in his silence and contemplation, there seems to be a dark man capable of anything, just waiting to come out. Eatwood suffers during the trip and almost meets his death because of a great beating he suffered at the mercy of Little Bill. He takes every punch and kick like he deserves it, as if he wants to die. He crawls away from the whorehouse in pain, but also with the persistence and psychotic resolution of a predestined assassin of the West. Once he gets back up and meets the victimized whore outside a barn, he starts gaining his confidence back and, with that, some of his old vicious self. The old assassin is slowly revealed and with that, Eastwood’s commanding presence on the screen grows larger.
What ensues in the last few scenes, as Munny’s wickedness and thirst for revenge in the form of violence fully awakens, is one of the most electrifying action sequences ever put in film. It lacks the glamor and the perfectly tuned craft of today’s action movies, but it plays effectively as the awkwardness and imperfection gives it a sense of realism that would otherwise lack.
Eastwood directs Unforgiven with patience, in a manner that recalls the work of the previous masters of the best American Westerns, while defining a fitting end for an era of movie-making that saw Clint Eastwood rise as one of its most prominent stars. Unforgiven also reminds me of another masterpiece, Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, in which a delusional and psychotic cab driver is treated as a hero, after he explodes in an act of violence that had seemed at odds with his personality for much of the film.
For its beautiful scenery, the rawness of his camerawork, the perfect casting, his patient yet electrifying storyline, and for his indelible presence in the movie, Eastwood managed to produce a work that is flawless in its genre, and that is superior in its detail and intricacies to anything he has ever been a part of before or after.
Rating: 5 out of 5 (flawless)