‘Unforgiven’ – ’92 Cinema Revue

Unforgiven – #1 in the US (Aug. 7 – 9)

All-Time Domestic $101,167,799 | All-Time International $58,000,000

All-Time Worldwide $159,167,799

Unforgiven is a remarkable deconstruction of the Western and one of the best in the genre.

Westerns, as people knew them were all but dead in 1992. The revisionist Western Dances With Wolves won Best Picture at the Academy Awards in 1991. Back to the Future Part II embraced the hokey Westerns of the past. Young Guns II was an okay sequel with a sweet Jon Bon Jovi song. While they weren’t exactly the go-to genre, there was still enough love. Yet, these films hardly come to mind when one thinks of the genre these days. What may come to mind is Clint Eastwood.

He cemented his career in the genre with Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy, then tackled a few of his own both behind and in front of the camera. Eastwood is forever linked to the perfect Western look and hero. That’s what made him the ideal man for the job tackling the standards set by the genre with 1992’s Unforgiven. Eastwood had been in many forms of the Western from the standard paint-by-numbers bad versus good, dabbled in revisionism, and the musical one he’d rather forget. Unforgiven would be his swan song by directing a script by Blade Runner screenwriter David Webb Peoples. Eastwood would also star as William Munny, a former gunslinger who acts as the older version of the Man with No Name moniker (with Eastwood claiming it as such). It would be the sunset finale to his time in the West, this time with warts and all.

In 1880, Will Munny (Eastwood) was told by a passerby named the Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett) of a $1,000 reward for catching two cowboys who cut up a sex worker in Big Whiskey. Munny, reeling from the death of his wife three years prior, sees this as an opportunity to get more money for his farm and to care for his children. He reluctantly accepts and brings his former partner Ned Long (Morgan Freeman) on the journey. Meanwhile, in Big Whiskey, Sheriff “Little” Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman) is relentless and violent towards those passing through. He has no sympathy for gunslingers such as English Bob (Richard Harris) nor the sex workers in his town, seeing them more as property than humans. Munny must not revert to his old ways as he traverses the wild West once more; a world though familiar, is not what it seems.

Unforgiven is a remarkable deconstruction of the Western, yet one of the finest films within that genre. No heroes nor villains are in the film, subverting the black-and-white morals of classic Westerns. A loss of humanity in the air and grit lessens the lush beauty of the surrounding setting. Clint has the direction down, borrowing from his previous collaborators with a performance that is one for the books on his career. 

Eastwood is dynamite as the scarred and weathered Munny. It’s hard not to sympathize with seeing him broken down to a vulnerable state, barely able to get on a horse, and hanging by a thread to maintain his humanity. Munny hasn’t had a drop of alcohol in a decade. Yet, he hasn’t been a criminal in that time either. He seems like someone you can get close to and understand, yet within him lingers the mentality of a killer and bandit. This killer mentality comes to a head in the finale that in any other film would be a badass final stand yet becomes a terrifying moment of the degradation of his humanity. Eastwood plays Munny with humanity to him, someone trying to do the best they can given the circumstances, but ultimately, his killer instinct can’t be bottled up. It’s a heartbreaking performance that reminds those watching that Eastwood is a damn good actor.

William Munny (Clint Eastwood) sits in the saloon, ignoring the whiskey shot in front of him. Source: Warner Bros.

A terrifying performance by Hackman powers his designated foil in “Little” Bill. The intimidation factors and his great bravado make Bill an awful man and human. He is a downright bastard but someone that can be easily approachable in conversation. His talks of myths versus reality with English Bob’s biographer is great, twisting the legend and turning it from a tall tale of heroism to a fit of drunken anger over a crush in minutes. You hang on to every word as he ensures the legend is pure fiction with each harsh truth. His beatdown of Bob is also heartwrenching. Seeing the gentleman Bob, performed exceptionally by Harris, getting kicked down like he was nothing is disheartening. English Bob is not a good man either, as he was hired to kill Chinese workers on railroads if they made mistakes. No one should have sympathy for him in the slightest, yet seeing an older man beat to a pulp is rough and only echoed later in his treatment of Ned and Will.

William Munny (Clint Eastwood) gives the saloon’s patrons an ultimatum before returning to violent form. Source: Warner Bros. Pictures

That’s what the film boils down to at its core. The world is not the good-vs-evil notion seen in Western, but rather it’s people trying to survive in a natural world and making strides to do what they deem is right. There are no heroes in this story, nor are there any true villains. Everyone has something they are trying to replace or redeem themselves. Yet, no one has one authentic way to go about it. Will’s too caught up in the pains of the past. Although, his current state of being is to find redemption for his soul. Unfortunately, he succumbs to how the past viewed him. Will becomes the man of myth and legend in a brutal way that makes us not cheer but live in fear. Bill himself is too much of an arrogant hypocrite that he can barely save himself from his persona. Ned seems to be the only one with the right idea, heading out on the journey to try and redeem his soul, but heads back, knowing it would not mean much in the end.

Unfortunately, the world is what it is, catching up with him and resulting in an undeserving death. Bill asks about his own life being at the hands of Will, “What I do to deserve this?” Will reply, “Deserves got nothing to do with it.” No one deserves death, good or evil; it just comes when it comes. No one deserves violence, such as Delilah (Anna Thomson) getting cut up by the cowboy in the saloon or rocks being thrown at Strawberry Alice’s (Frances Fisher) window because of what happened to her. And, most certainly, no one deserves to live in a world so ruthless that its glamorization only brings more harm than good, such as the Schofield Kid regretting being a part of the myth the minute he pulls the trigger on someone.

William Munny (Clint Eastwood) and Ned Long (Morgan Freeman) ride across the sunset. Source: Warner Bros. Pictures

The romanticization of the wild West is not present in the film. Though revisionist Westerns have been done before (some of which Clint starred in as well), Unforgiven sets the tone for the subsequent Westerns to come, even if some play the Western straight. The ambiguity and realism take over in the next round of Westerns, from Tombstone having hints of it, the remake of 3:10 to Yuma following in the footsteps of the original, and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford being a quieter meditation on the ideals of the time. It even helped inspire Red Dead Redemption on the video game front as both games have similar aspects to it, though it can be argued the first Redemption game is closer to this film than the last game, which is closer to The Wild Bunch than anything. 

What makes all these films and games so good is tearing down the rose-colored views by letting everyone know, “hey, shit actually sucked, and here’s why.” The myths are dispelled with harsh realities that can be more relatable in the long run, but it must be up to the audience to accept that truth, even if we want clear-cut answers. Unforgiven can still challenge the views on the genre for those seeing it for the first time. It was my first time seeing it. I kept thinking about how to write about this movie all night. I kept thinking about what to tackle and how to get my point across. I’m still unclear if I wrote everything I wanted to say in this review. I do know I’m never going to look at Knott’s Berry Farm’s Ghost Town the same way again.

Unforgiven is Eastwood’s finest hour with terrific direction, stellar performances, and clever examination of its once popular genre. I adored this film for calling itself out and the realism it delivered. It’s gritty and keeps being honest about the story it wants to tell. It’s not devolving itself into a myth but rather a fiction with truth buried in it. There’s a reason this film would go on to garner the Best Picture award at the Oscars. It’s the most phenomenal film covered in this series (so far) and one I cannot wait to revisit soon.

Revue Rating: 5 out of 5

Next week, if your roommate comes back with the same haircut as yours, please kick them out. That’s a massive red flag Bridget Fonda ignores in Single White Female. Time for some fun 90’s trash once again.

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