A terrific movie deserving of the mythic status its garnered since its release as a model for revisionst Westerns (we’ve seen its imprint on every Western that’s followed including, 15 years later, the brilliant HBO series Deadwood). On the surface, the appeal of Unforgiven lies with Eastwood’s iconic presence, and in the existential gloom that hangs over it. David Webb Peoples’ “last ride” plotline goes on to explore several important themes, each channeled effectively through the excellent performaces by Eastwood, Morgan, Hackman, Harris and Rubinek. The themes of male bravado, courage, and violence are all easy enough to spot, but most fascinating is Eastwood’s treatment of extreme leftism gone amuck, as personified by Hackman’s terrifying sheriff, Little Bill. Bill lords over the small, vulnerable town of Big Whiskey, Wyoming with an iron hand. He’s particularly insistent about his “No Firearms” policy: With all his citizens unarmed, he and his goons are free to mete out their savage brand of justice without fear of reprisal from anyone. Big Whiskey, indeed, feels like a town under the grip of fascism — a cautionary example of Big Government whose powers have gone unchecked — as told by Eastwood, the rugged individualist. Rather than espouse any political affiliation, though, Unforgiven honors love and loyalty above anything else, and the individual’s moral responsiblity to pull down any force that would obstruct our freedom to live our lives, and seek our destinies in peace. It’s a weighty subject matter, but handled eloquently by Webb Peoples, Eastwood, and his cast.
You can’t help but be awed by Eastwood’s weary, squint-eyed, rock-cut features and his laconic delivery: With this movie he really cemented his legend. His Will Munney is a guilt-burdened ex-gunfighter whose reputation as a ruthless murderer has haunted him even as he has strived to set his life straight. After his wife’s death, he finds himself unable to make a living as a pig farmer, so, reluctantly, Munney takes up his gun again to recover a bounty offered by Big Whiskey’s prostitutes in response to the mutilation of one of their own. Munney rides out with his old partner, Ned Logan (Freeman) and a gun-happy punk, The Schofield Kid (Woolvet), in search of the perpetrators and ends up in a tragic confrontation with Little Bill. The action unfolds grimly, sloppily, as we realize that Munney’s last-act run for vengeance against the ruthless Bill is all but unavoidable. Not everything in Unforgiven clicks: the aforementioned performances aside, the rest of them are uneven and, while graceful and unintrusive, Eastwood’s direction sometimes veers into the ham-fisted and over-keyed. All in all, though, this remains Eastwood’s best film — a compelling study of the shame and guilt that attends violence, of the rule of the mighty over the weak and of courage and cowardice.
Directed by: Clint Eastwood
Written by: David Webb Peoples
Cast: Clint Eastwood, Morgan Freeman, Gene Hackman, Richard Harris, Jaimz Woolvett, Saul Rubinek, Frances Fisher