Directed by Clint Eastwood
Written by David Webb Peoples
Cast: Anna Levine, Anthony James, Gene Hackman, Jaimz Woolvett, Clint Eastwood, Morgan Freeman, Richard Harris, and Saul Rubinek
Length: 2 hours and 10 minutes
Genre: Drama, western
MPAA Rating: R
Description from IMDB:
“Retired Old West gunslinger William Munny reluctantly takes on one last job, with the help of his old partner and a young man.”
In the town of Big Whiskey, Wyoming, a prostitute (Anna Levine) is brutally attacked by a cowboy in a fit of rage. Much to the chagrin of the establishment’s owner Skinny (Anthony James) and the town’s sheriff, “Little” Bill Daggertt (Gene Hackman), her fellow ladies of the night put together a reward for the death of the cowboy and his partner. This leads to gunslingers heading to the small town, including the “Scofield Kid” (Jaimz Woolvett), a young, wannabe killer who seeks out William Munny (Clint Eastwood), a man with a dark past of violence. Will is convinced to join for the money and the nobility of the act, though he is initially reluctant to leave his children and the quiet life he lived because of his wife, who is now deceased. In order to accomplish the task, he enlists his friend Ned (Morgan Freeman), and the three go off to Big Whiskey to face off with the sheriff and set things right.
The major characters of Unforgiven (1992) both share the same proper name, though they go by its variation and this speaks to their shared traits and differences. Both Will and Little Bill have pasts as ruthless gunslingers, albeit on differing sides of the law. Will’s past was fueled by youth, violence, and whiskey which led to his taking the life of anyone who stood in his way. However, he was able to marry a kind woman who reformed his ways and led him to the life of a simple farmer. Little Bill has a mean streak and will do whatever is necessary to keep cowboys seeking the prostitutes’ reward out of Big Whiskey. He also dreams of a peaceful life, specifically finishing the home he is building himself and sitting on his porch while watching the sun set. Both men are unable to escape the violence and death-dealing that comes naturally to them, which makes them both tragic characters, albeit in different ways. Little Bill meets his mortal end, telling Will that he will “see you in Hell”, to which Will agrees, resigned to the knowledge of his violent nature.
Much like Open Range (2003), Unforgiven (1992) is what is called a revisionist western; this means that the film subverts the common motifs and tropes of its genre. Unforgiven (1992) does this by showing the evil lawman, the good criminal, and by pointing out the fantastic elements of the western myth. The main plot of the film hinges on killing two men, and killing is talked about throughout. The Scofield Kid continually boasts of having killed five men in an attempt to impress Ned and Will (which it doesn’t), and renounces killing after taking his first life. It is no simple thing to kill a man, as Will explains to the Kid, and we see Ned, a veteran killer, struggle with this as well. These men question the morality of it and the difficulty of taking a life; even Little Bill is hesitant to do so, and death is dealt by him through going too far while interrogating Ned. The mythic western trope of a gun battle where an outnumbered man comes out on top is also addressed by the story itself. English Bob (Richard Harris) comes to Big Whiskey with his biographer, W. W. Beauchamp (Saul Rubinek), in tow looking to add another tale to his story of exploits. It isn’t until Bob is beaten and jailed that Beauchamp learns from Little Bill what actually happened during one of the events Bob embellished to make himself look better. The film does play to its audience, however, by including one of these mythic gun battles at the end of the film, after Will has taken up his mantle of the quiet killer again.
Unforgiven (1992) won four academy awards, one of which was Best Picture, which speaks to its lasting influence in film. Though some of the acting falls short, especially with regards to Freeman and Woolvett’s performances, Hackman and Eastwood shine in their respective roles and carry the majority of the film. This is one of my favorites because of how aware it is of its genre, and it seeks to revolutionize it by questioning the common tropes rather than falling into them. Eastwood did a great job as director, and the framing in the film is some of the best in the genre. Unforgiven (1992) is a tour-de-force of compelling storytelling with fantastic lead actors and an evocative execution.
Verdict: 4 contemplative killers out of 5
Recommended for: Fans of westerns, people who want to see Clint Eastwood having trouble mounting a horse, those who enjoy looking at the beautiful high country, and adults.
Not recommended for: People who don’t want to see Clint Eastwood having trouble mounting a horse (liars), those who dislike westerns, fans of Morgan Freeman, people who can’t separate “Little Bill” from the Nickelodeon cartoon, or children.