Top 100 Movie Review: #98 – Unforgiven (1992)

A Ho-Hum Western

The moment you’ve been waiting for finally comes 4/5ths through the movie, but it all seems too late and anti-climatic. 

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Clint Eastwood, Morgan Freeman and Jaimz Woolvett. 

American Film Institutes Ranking: #98/100
Academy Awards: Nominated for several: best picture, actor, screenplay, director, supporting actor. Won for supporting actor (Gene Hackman), Director (Clint Eastwood) and Picture.
My Rating: smooth-starsmooth-star

I’m okay with Westerns. My favorite book of all time happens to be a Western (Lonesome Dove). Older generations who display the red,white and blue at every door and buy cars made only in Detroit view Westerns as a quintessential American representation. The West represents the idyllic egalitarian society with no centralized government and each small community creating their own standards for law and acceptable behavior — no need for big government here!

It all works out for you as long as you are the swashbuckling cowboy and not one of the the characters regelated to the edges such as women, children, seniors, and those not willing to be violent. Unforgiven continues with this deconstruction of the Western narrative, focusing on a protagonist that isn’t glistening with moral righteousness while showing the real toll of vigilante justice. So while Unforgiven is certainly a Western, it tries to butt up against the glorification of the genre.

My problem is that in the process of flipping the script, you lose connection with the characters leaving a resolution that is ultimately unsatisfying.

[Spoilers] William Munney (played by Clint Eastwood) used to be a notorious, violent cowboy, killing anyone for reward money. His wife passed away, and she was the impetus for his big change — he is now living as a farmer and no longer partakes in killing nor alcohol. Schofield (played by Woolvett) shows up one day trying to recruit him back into his past life to kill a couple of cowboys that roughed up a prostitute for a reward. While William first refuses, he decides to to return partially to his previous life and recruits an old friend that used to help him in his escapades, Ned Logan (played by Morgan Freeman).

Along the way, William maintains his new ethical standards, only doing this seemingly for retribution to make up for the lack of punishment the outlaw cowboys received. While Ned and Shofield hook up with people and drink, William shoots a straight arrow, respecting his dead wife. They finally catch up to one of the outlaws, and while Ned shoots him in the leg, he can’t finish him off. William coldly finishes the job.

Here is where we start to see our characters diverge: Ned leaves because he realizes he can’t go back to this life of killing, the young Shofield wants to prove more than ever he can kill a man, and William starts to show cracks of what he used to be. Shofield is successful in killing the other outlaw cowboy, but it leaves him completely scarred, leaving William after telling him “I’m not like you Will.” Ned never successfully escapes his old life, getting captured and killed by the sheriff (Gene Hackman) who originally let the cowboys off with little more than a warning for interfering with his verdict.

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Once William finds out about what happened to his old friend Ned, his transformation is now complete: he downs a bottle of whiskey and you can tell he is pissed. Now here is the moment we’ve all been waiting for, the classic throw back to Dirty Harry where Clint Eastwood is going to break bad on anyone and everyone, and we relish in justice finally being served.

Except…we end up not feeling all that great about what happens. I return to the title of the film to try and explain what they tried to do here: this is a story of reverse redemption for our protagonist. While William had been forgiven, by the end of the movie he reverts back to his old ways. going back on what his wife, friends and even himself. The moment we’ve been waiting for (we all knew it was a matter of time before a Clint Eastwood character was going to bust loose) normally is a joyous moment, but instead is a let down as Eastwood finishes his slip back into his heinous life.

This, in itself, is a cool slight of hand, and I’m okay with having my world rocked. But, there is absolutely no connection to the characters; everyone is unlikeable! William is just pure evil, someone who can never escape who he is. Shofield is a hot-shot who is all talk. Gene Hackman’s character is the perfect antagonist: someone you are just waiting for Clint Eastwood to deal with, but you don’t really want William to come out on top either, so that resolution was not as satisfying either. Ned was good but is the only one who doesn’t make it out alive. The best character (English Bob) doesn’t have anything to do with the main trio of characters and is on separate story arc, probably the biggest mistake of the movie.

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Maybe I’ve become cliche in want I look to Hollywood to do — wouldn’t it been nice from Clint Eastwood to move from unforgiven to forgiven instead? Ultimately, the story is very ho-hum and the focus was supposed to be the growth of characters and what it means to be forgiven. Unfortunately, you are left without having anyone in your camp, so their ultimate transitions doesn’t land a punch.

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