"Deserve's got nothin' to do with it...."
- Every once and a while, a western film rides into town that re-writes the rules of the genre. Such ground-breaking westerns as High Noon (1952), The Searchers (1956), and Leone's "Dollars" Trilogy (1964-66) were joined with another ground-breaking western in 1992: Clint Eastwood's unforgettable award-winning film Unforgiven.
Unforgiven turns the entire western film genre on its head. Where many westerns tell the classic tale of a righteous lone gunman out to serve justice or some other thing, Unforgiven does not know the meaning of the word "righteous." The film looks like it might take the clichéd western road in the beginning but quite quickly veers off of it; Unforgiven is set in a sad, dangerous, violent, and hero-less American West.
The film centers mostly around William Munny (Clint Eastwood), once a deadly killer now a quiet farmer and father reformed by his late wife, who together with his old friend, Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman), and new acquaintance, the brash Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett), go off to kill two men who nearly killed a hooker in the town of Big Whisky, Wyoming. As easy as that sounds for three talented killers, Big Whiskey's Sheriff, Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman), has his own severe brand of law enforcement and is dead-set against not having anyone killed in his town. Munny does not want to kill again but his desperate situation calls for him to accept this one last murdering spree for the promised bounty. As he wrestles with his past and present, Munny tracks down the whore-hurting targets and encounters the violent Sheriff Daggett.
Directed by Clint Eastwood, Unforgiven is an unbelievably fantastic film. The wonderful script by David Webb Peoples incorporates terrific characters, strong themes, and particularly unforgettable dialogue into the compelling story. Eastwood forms an absolutely striking visual picture - beautiful scenery, dark shadowing, superb coloring, and intrepid camera work - and many moments of extreme tension in the film that have no equal in the western genre or film itself.
Also acting in Unforgiven, Eastwood dons the 'ol Stetson hat, gun belt, and gruff demeanor for the last time in a western movie. With as long and influential a mark that Eastwood had left on the western genre, it is very fitting that his last performance in a western be his best performance ever. Eastwood has, quite simply, never given this layered a portrayal or been this intense over his entire career in Unforgiven. What starts out as a quiet and subtle performance continues to build to a crushingly violent and intense outburst - and it is a riveting sight.
Every other actor in the film is great as well. Gene Hackman won an Oscar for his portrayal of Little Bill and it makes sense. Hackman has never been this good; adding a looming presence to the film and blurring the lines of heroism and villainy to add depth to the character. Also, Frances Fisher is a particularly great and unsung supporter in the film as head whore Alice - and Morgan Freeman, Richard Harris, Jaimz Woolvett, and Saul Rubinek give excellent supporting performances that really make their characters interesting on top of entertaining.
Within a genre that tends to feature large scenes of gunplay and other violence in a positive light (I condemn no film for that, by the way), Unforgiven takes a different approach with a powerful and thoughtful discussion of the American West, its violence, mythos, and composition. But in a refreshing direction, the film makes no solid conclusions. Rather, it forces the viewer to think about the featured story, characters, and events and come to their own conclusions, making Unforgiven that much more of a better film. But even if the themes of the film go over one's head, Unforgiven can still be a brilliant film simply because of the absorbing story, the memorable characters, intense atmosphere, and the excellent directorial craftsmanship of Clint Eastwood.