Unforgiven (1992): A Guest Movie Review

Unforgiven (1992): A Guest Movie Review

Director Clint Eastwood so thoroughly gulled me with this self-serious and anachronistic meditation on women’s issues and gun violence transposed to the 19th-century American frontier (1880 Wyoming, to be specific) that I took away a number of enduring misperceptions from it, chief among them that Eastwood embraced liberal/progressive values. It’s fair enough to say I like Unforgiven in the same way and for much the same reasons that I like the Star Trek franchise, particularly The Next Generation—for the earnest way it supplants toxic old myths and replaces them with new and convincing models (to me, the eternal political naïf and social optimist). As propaganda, one might say, putting a less pleasant spin on it.

It wasn’t until the last presidential election cycle that I finally said something that caused a friend to disabuse me of my sense of Eastwood (imagine if it had been this year when he turned up talking to an empty chair in prime time—how embarrassing for me!).

Twenty years on, it’s readily apparent that Unforgiven is more a picture about 1992 than 1880—or perhaps, more abstractly, about making Westerns in 1992 rather than 1939. The self-seriousness is written into practically every line and gesture. For all the sturdy structure and fine pacing and confidence of the storytelling, the two sets of values are so jarring in opposition to one another and our expectations—the look and feel of the rugged West where a man is a man vs. “c’mon people now, smile on your brother, everybody get together, try and love one another right now,” etc.—that it often comes across as stilted and affected. Yet I have seen Unforgiven many times and it rarely fails to work on me.

Unforgiven sets itself successfully to chipping in to the reinvention of the Western, an ongoing long-term project that started with notes of psychological realism after World War II, as with, for example, Winchester 73 (the Western, full disclosure, being a genre that has never much appealed to me in and of itself, though I often like the reinventions). As far as I know, no one in 1880 (and certainly no one in pre-WWII Westerns) thought much about abused prostitutes, gun violence, and killing in the sorts of overtly humanistic ways they are taken and discussed here. (I guess there’s The Ox-Bow Incident, but in a way that makes my point; it’s as much a liberal outlier as Unforgiven.) People may have had the feelings, or even something like the more general world view, but they didn’t talk these ways. I don’t believe that the conversations (or anything like them) occurring in this picture could possibly have happened in the 19th century.

When Unforgiven was still a new movie, I took it, as many did, as Eastwood’s quasi-apologia for the thoughtless brutalities of the shoot-’em-ups in the early part of his career, which extends all the way back to TV’s Rawhide in the late ’50s and ’60s and of course includes a few famous rounds with the stylized ultraviolence of Sergio Leone. But even if it is that, Eastwood had already been studiously rueful about the excesses of Western violence since at least High Plains Drifter, which in many ways is nearly as much a mannered fable. If I don’t always believe the elevated notes in Unforgiven of awe and respect for sweet sacred holy life evinced by these typical Western outlaws and cowboys and such, I can take the simple, morality-driven bent of the dialogue and action in those terms—as a fable, heavy-handed moral and all—because it is otherwise so expert at setting up the various crisscrossing confrontations of the second half that grow perilously more epic and titanic, never losing control of its powerful emotional center.

The picture also benefits from several great performances, starting with Eastwood himself, who by then, at 62, had lived so long with this grizzled man-with-no-name character that he puts it on like a favorite suit and goes to work sculpting something new out of it: William Munny, a bad man made pious by the love of a woman, who now wants only to own up to and meet his responsibilities. Munny keeps insisting, with a shrill pleading whine, “I ain’t like that no more. I don’t do those things anymore,” demonstrating with his words and actions both the desperation with which he clings to that idea of himself, painfully aware he is a widower now with two young children to raise, and the depths of its necessity to him.

Gene Hackman as a legendary sharpshooter-turned-sheriff and cruel but fair arbiter of justice in a fictional small town in Wyoming, is clearly having a ball. He cackles, chortles, and carries on as he handles the miscreants populating his town, explaining himself as he does so to a handy-for-the-exposition writer of fanciful fiction he picks up along the way, played by Saul Rubinek, who is terrific in the role. Morgan Freeman as Ned, Munny’s long-time partner, is his usual welcome warm and leavening presence. Richard Harris as English Bob, a preening and obnoxious British bounty hunter, is fine, and Jaimz Woolvett, as the Schofield Kid, is charmingly full of bluster and braggadocio.

But one always comes back to the odd humanistic tone here, whose themes are sounded like a guitar with one string badly tuned. In many ways the principals here feel more like movie versions of Vietnam vets than cowboys. They are unusually open, even startlingly so, about their innermost fears. They wax philosophical about the emotional realities of killing. And moral agony is freely expressed by one and all. Ned has a breakdown and can’t pull the trigger to kill his victim. When the Schofield Kid kills a man he gets drunk and sobs about it later, then gives away his gun and swears he’s never going to kill again. I don’t believe much of any of this and don’t see how anyone could.Unforgiven (1992) starring Clint Eastwood

Thus, in many ways, the dirty little secret of Unforgiven is that it functions most effectively as a revenge story. When Munny decides he must, as a matter of moral expedience, go back to his evil ways for a few more errands of death the picture and all the groundwork laid for it come most vitally alive, all its most compelling elements cohere: Eastwood the calculating cold-blooded killer adept we have known for decades, all the players stepping up to the big finish, the narrative corkscrewing its elements into their ultimate shape in the resolution, the photography with the dark-brown cast of its nighttime interiors, and the ultimate clash of philosophies played out like legendary battles of yore, with pistols and shotguns, every key point of it perfectly foreshadowed and ready for execution. For everything weird and off-key about it (I think it may not be aging well), in the end Unforgiven remains an enormously satisfying picture to watch play out.

More great Western Movie Articles:

A Taste of Spaghetti Westerns
Pasta Pistoleros: 10 Essential Spaghetti Westerns
The Magnificent Seven: Ten Things To Know About The Movie
The five best Western Songs
Short Grass (1950): Western Movie Review
The Duke and Dino Re-team for “The Sons of Katie Elder” 

JPK is an arts journalist and professional writer and editor who owns and operates the blog Can’t Explain, which covers movies, music, and books of the past.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=713983697 Gordon S. Jackson

    A very interesting response to a movie I saw once and whose craftmanship I appreciated very much, but also a film I personally hated thanks to (for me) an excessively graphic opening I couldn’t overcome. That said, JPKs references to Viet Nam ressonate. They are something to which I had not given any thought and may be reason enough to return for a second look, a very quick slide-through that graphic opening notwithstanding because I have always liked westerns. As a kid growing up, if there wasn’t a ‘duster’ on the Saturday matinee program then a trip to the movies was hardly worth the effort. (Not even a favourite ‘Rocketman’ serial was strong enough to entice.) As I got older of course I began to learn and understand the incredibly effective way the American western could be viewed as subversively undermining notions around belief and trust in prescribed law and order (as opposed to guilty-unti-proven-innocent vigilante justice), and society’s supposidly trustworthy authority figures like lawyers, doctors, the police, politicians and even preachers on occasion. For me, the drugstore/sometimes singing cowboys were the great attraction, the notion of the white hat always besting the black hat feeding into the fantasy that the white hats never did anything wrong whereas the black hats couldn’t do anything right. Good always overcame evil and that’s how the world worked, which of course it doesn’t. But then I was too young to ask such questions as why didn’t Roy, Gene, Rocky, Rex, Hoppy and Tim always work hand-in-glove with the local sherriff or marshall. Why did they, more than we may care to remember often work ‘outside of those officially charged with bringing or maintaining law and order’ even if the local official had not been corrupted by the greedy rancher, powerful saloon owner or ambitious real estate developer.

    There is so much one can say (and has already been said) about the American western simply because it probably represents, better than any other film form, the myriad of complexities and contradicitions that make up one country which in turn is equally a myriad of uniquely comprised, individual human beings struggling to figure out and survive what the hell it all means.

  • Wayne P.

    That is interesting and not just the fine movie review part but also the comments about Eastwood. I personally wouldnt think anyone would be too surprised that Clint has gotten more conservative, especially as hes gotten older (and supposedly wiser;)! That ad for the auto industry during the Super Bowl earlier this year mightve fooled some folks into thinking hes approved of everything the current administration is doing for (or to?) this countrys economy, but thats far from the case. Ive always thought he was more center-right—just like most of the nation these days I suspect—in his politics, especially given his propensity for playing law and order type characters in his movie roles and he has done more of his own directing and even producing as the years have gone by while always being heavily involved in the story-telling and/or script aspects of his films going way back.
    I also have no problem with more people like him and Jon Voight, Bruce Willis, Kelsey Grammar, Kiefer Sutherland, Steve Baldwin, Kirk Cameron and other more conservative personalities in the Hollywood sphere of infuence expressing their views in the public square instead of us always only just being subjected to the constant drum-beat of liberal/progessive opinions that were too often accustomed to hearing from the ‘left coast’!

    • fbusch

      I don’t think you can compare “Unforgiven” with most Westerns since it’s not about normal western subjects. My take is; it’s about a man who having given up his “evil” ways and is struggling to unsucessfully raise his widowed children sees an opportunity to make enough money to move to more civilized living by doing something he is skilled at. I don’t think he’s really interested in what was done to the prostitute, As evidenced by his dialog, he’s trying to keep a grip on a commitment to a dead wife to care for his kids and not slip all the way back to his old ways. The kid can see well to hit someone up close, but, his story is a lie to give him status. Morgan Freeman also desperate to improve his living conditions allows gimself to be talked into helping Eastwood. Hackman having been just as bad as the rest has gotten a position of power and protects it with exccesive cruelty to keep his power intact. While Eastwood is a conservative, If you look deeply at all his films where he’s got some control, he has always been antigun and preaches about the negative things associated with power and greed. Give me more Eastwood, he keeps me close attached to reality. Oh yeah, I like regular westerns too! I believe many of us don’t like to look too deeply into ourselves.

  • SoonerAlfie

    That this movie won any award is amazing. The sound, cinematography, costuming and editing were OK, but the story line was not quality – and the film remains my least favorite among Eastwood projects. The role of the kid who couldn’t see well enough to shoot is on my all-time ‘most annoying characters’ list.

  • Steve in Sacramento

    Wow, great review, JPK (bookmarking your blog). Either like or unlike Little Bill Daggett, you’ve hit the nail on the head! I partly wonder if it’s so impossible that people might have been conflicted about killing in 1880, but I agree it’s hard not to be conscious that the characters’ dialogue is precisely that, and aware of Unforgiven as “more a picture about 1992 than 1880.” So I have some of the same problems with the movie (which I realize even more clearly now, since you articulated them so well), but like you, I find the movie’s craft (especially the direction, cinematography, and acting) makes it quite “enormously satisfying.” Nothing like Gene Hackman saying, “Duck, I says”!

  • Cara

    I believe that Unforgiven is one of the greatest westerns, no, movies from any genre, ever made. To me, this movie has the same tragic resonance as King Lear. Just as in the beginning of King Lear, tragedy doesn’t seem inevitable, at a certain point, the viewer knows that no one can escape the nihilism that engulfs them. There are numerous paths that the characters in Unforgiven can take at the beginning of the film, but at a certain point, the viewer realizes that the path for all the characters has narrowed into a one way road to hell.

    Clint Eastwood is a complex man. He is politically conservative, but his movies, especially his later movies, are filled with contradictions and, yes, a kind of liberal humanism. It’s a mistake to pigeonhole Eastwood and equate him with the man and the empty chair, just as it’s a mistake to believe that Dirty Harry is the essence of Eastwood.

    It is true that Eastwood is the only person standing at the end of the climatic gun battle in Unforgiven, but Eastwood’s character has been stripped of all his humanity, and his character is aware that he would be better off among the dead that litter the saloon.

    Some could read this film in the light of one of Eastwood’s revenge themes, but I believe it would be a mistake to take the film on such simplistic terms. It is the women’s need for revenge because of the inhuman acts against them that starts events in motion and brings in Freeman and Eastwood to avenge the women’s wrongs. But vengeance only begets more vengence until civility and empathy and order are destroyed, and all who were involved–the victims, the villains, and the avengers–are lost in the chaos of violence.

    • hiram

      RIght. The main themes are the impossibility of redemption and a questioning of the idea of retributive justice. “We’ve all got it coming” literally sent a chill through me when I first heard it. The bleakest movie to ever win an Oscar (along with GODFATHER II and its “what history has taught it is that you kill anyone” outlook). Some people mjstakenly think that you’re supposed to cheer Eastwood at the end, when he has clearly become the Angel or Death and the rider on the pale horse. I don’t beleive in original sin; UNFORGIVEN does.

  • Stan

    Funny, but this movie always seemed a cut above almost all the movies Mr. Eastwood made. I don’t see it as apologetic to his earlier work at all. Rather I see it as his career evolved to a somewhat more ability to make a statement that people will pay attention to. The movie is very much like that of a Shakesparean tragedy. That being said the strong point are the roles and the casting. Morgan Freeman was the only choice Clint could make for the role of his conscience come to life for the story to work on the level he was choosing. Freeman’s character is logical, sensitive, and intelligent. To me he was probably a lot like the main character’s wife now deceased. As good as Freeman was for his role lets not forget how great Gene Hackman was as the cold hearted Sheriff. The fact that between Clint and Hackman’s characters was Freeman who again makes the movie into one of the best.

  • watthyer

    I think its fascinating that people can read so much into some films, positive and negative. That must be an earmark of a great film. I love Unforgiven and think the main point is summed up in that one line, “we all got it coming to us, kid.” The older I get, the more often that line echos in my head. I think its a notion everybody should take to heart.

  • classicsforever

    “Unforgiven” is one of the best westerns ever made. It takes the glamor out of the typical western and replaces it with reality. There is no place for the weak or timid in this film.

    By the way, the conversation between Munny and the Schofield Kid near the end of the movie is absolutely classic. In that short talk Eastwood summed up everything you need to know about a gunfighter.

  • Joe Kidd

    Why wouldn’t it be aging well? In that case, how could any great Western have aged well?

    I’d say that “Unforgiven” is timeless.