by Robert Taylor / IAFT-L.A.
The Western genre has always been unique in the way it embraces the histories of its characters.
Other genres, from horror to period drama to comedy, tend to sidestep backgrounds and history, giving the viewer the feeling that the characters begin existing the moment the story begins, complete with one or two quirks or traits, but not much else.
That is not so with the Western.
Every great or even good Western involves what happened long before the movie begins just as much as what happens during the story. Unforgiven (1992) is no exception.
Long ago, Bill Munny was a no-good drunk with a tendency to kill people when stewed.
But that was before he fell in love with and married a woman who set him straight.
As the film opens he stands at her gravestone. He has two kids to take care of now and little money to do it with, so when a young man called the Schofield Kid rides up with an enticing offer, Munny finds it hard to refuse.
It’s $1000 to any man who kills two ruffians who sliced up a whore’s face because she laughed at the size of one’s pecker.
After some initial misgivings, Munny enlists his old partner Logan, and the three of them set off together. They don’t know the town they’re riding into is run by a sadistic sheriff they call Little Bill, who will beat a man within inches of his life for carrying a gun into town, but does nothing to penalize the two men who cut up the woman.
Much is made of who Munny was before and his effort to not be that man anymore. He sounds rehearsed every time he talks about the evil things he’s done and how he was saved from his wickedness. He refuses whiskey even when hit with a debilitating fever.
Munny seems to be over-insisting that he’s a changed man, and even though he’s trying to deliver justice, he can only kid himself for so long—since he will be murdering two men he has no personal vendetta against.
When the film focuses on that inner turmoil, it is at its best.
The script paints a diverse, interesting canvas of characters. There are numerous fantastic details. Making the Schofield Kid near-sighted. (That’s refreshing since eyesight is almost never addressed in Westerns, shocking since it is so important to anyone who carries a gun.) Giving Little Bill a whip to drive his brutality home. Why Munny chose to shoot who he shot in what order after the fact. All great moments.
The acting throughout is uniformly top-notch.
Clint Eastwood is the most consistent and even-handed of directors. He rarely shows off with the camera, and instead of using tricks or quick-cutting allows the scenes to breathe. This results in a steady pace and slow build, both of which feel fresh in an era in which we are force-fed wild changes in pacing, thanks to a generation afflicted with filmmaking ADD.
Unforgiven picked up Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor and Best Editing in the 1993 Academy Awards, along with five other nominations, including Best Original Screenplay and Best Cinematography.
- Director: Clint Eastwood
- Writer: David Webb Peoples
- Actors: Clint Eastwood, Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman, Richard Harris, Frances Fisher, Jaimz Woolvett, Anna Thompson, Cherrilene Cardinal