One thing that never ceases to amaze me is the public's reaction to Clint Eastwood. I’ve seen actors complain about being typecast, but holy smokes, Eastwood’s whole career in movies has been tainted. He played Dirty Harry and Philo Beddo. I know that. This is a very, very small part of his resume, though. Consider his work as a director. Have you noticed that every time he comes out with a new movie, people are shocked that it’s good? How many people even know he directed Unforgiven, the subject of this review?
As awesome as the late 80's and early 90's were, there weren’t many serious Westerns made then. Clint Eastwood had made a bunch of Western movies before, usually portraying a superhumanly fast gunslinger facing an army of bad guys. If that’s what you’re wanting, this isn’t the movie for you. This isn’t an action movie, and I know quite a few people who hated it for that reason. Instead, Unforgiven presents a drama about how you live with yourself after having done really bad things and the temptation to do those things again when properly pressured.
Eastwood’s acting range isn’t the best, but he’s well-suited for the role of Will Munny, a former outlaw/gunman/thief/murderer/other bad stuff. He’s long-retired, after having married a woman who gave him children and set him on the right path. With his wife having passed away, he’s left with the kids and little talent at doing anything profitable. There’s always killing business to be done, in this case, murdering a guy who cut up a prostitute’s face. Will is enlisted in this by the self-named Schofield Kid, played by Jaimz Woolvett. After recruiting Will’s old partner, Ned (Morgan Freeman), the group departs to mete out the revenge against the offending party and his comrades.
The acting is all quite good, with Freeman and Gene Hackman (as the town sheriff to whom said revenge is to be meted) tending to steal whatever scenes they are in. What stands out here most, I think, is Eastwood’s direction. Considering his alleged penchant for doing scenes in one take, Unforgiven is well-nigh miraculous. You don’t see a whole lot of his movies fleshing out the characters like you do here, which to me requires a lot more from the actors if they’re going to “fit” their roles. The movie is long, but every single minute of it is chock-full of purpose. Seemingly off-topic exchanges like Will’s mention of his wife to the prostitute, Richard Harris’s appearance as an older gunfighter, bad guys arguing over whether it hurts more to get shot in the heat or the cold, etc., are all quite vital to the film’s themes.
The obvious one that gets the most play is the fact that any violence in the Old West would have up-close, messy, and brutal. There isn’t the lightning fast guy who wipes out a dozen armed men in seconds, without remorse. Really though, this movie is about exactly what the title says: forgiveness and revenge. A good friend of mine finds the movie hammy and almost revolting for this reason. Frankly, I think this says more about our common conception of such things and our aversion to these topics. Think about it. There’s a whole genre of “revenge flicks.” I’m not sure how many “forgiveness flicks” there are. Even in the movies where the protagonist decides not to kill his enemy, more often than not there’s the bad guy’s last dive for his weapon, forcing the good guy to finish him off. While it’s not technically revenge in the movie (now it’s self-defense, and thus more justifiable), it’s basically revenge for the audience, allowing us to see the evil person die for their crimes. Unforgiven asks the question of whether or not this revenge stuff is actually worth it. You don’t have to be a particularly deep thinker to follow this, though it works on a bunch of different levels. However, some won’t like the question getting asked in the first place.
The movie is a pretty good Catholic allegory in a lot of ways. The most oft-repeated line is Will’s comment that “I ain’t like that no more” with reference to his past sins. The problem is that, under the right circumstances, he is like that. As are we all. Will struggles quite a bit not to return to his old ways, but he does, same as everyone else. We’re all fallen. We all continue to fall. Not doing so requires a power far beyond our natural abilities. Will doesn’t have it. Will doesn’t stand alone in this spotlight. His colleagues do similarly bad things, and the one who tries to stop himself winds up in a rough place. Will sums it up very nicely. “We all got it comin’.” This is something lost on modern minds. People consider themselves nice enough and without bad sins, so they feel no guilt and reject anything that would be punishment. The truth is that we all indeed have it coming and deserve the worst punishments imaginable. It’s only through God’s mercy that some will be spared that.
This isn’t a movie for kids. A brothel is a main setting, so you’ve got that going on. As you can imagine from what I wrote above, the violence is very graphic. The language is about as bad. Several GDs and lots of sexual references. The ugliness is there for a reason, though I wish they would have left the blasphemy out. That said, this is one of those movies that I think everyone should see, if only to watch a Best Picture winner that isn’t utterly horrible. The GD's and the language aside, this film is perfect. I’m happy to award it two point five tiaras.