Unforgiven (1992)    3 Stars


Unforgiven (1992)

Director: Clint Eastwood

Cast: Clint Eastwood, Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman

Synopsis: Retired Old West gunslinger William Munny reluctantly takes on one last job, with the help of his old partner and a young man.




Clint Eastwood’s last western to date is a near-perfect attempt to debunk the mythology built around both the actual west and the western as a film genre. It tells the tale of William Munney, retired hellraiser, killer of women and children, who has spent the last ten years of his life living peacefully as a pig farmer. Following the death of his wife, the woman who tamed him, the pig farm has faltered and Munney is tempted back into his old ways when The Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett) offers him a half-share in the reward offered by a group of prostitutes for the scarring of one of their own by a cowboy in the town of Big Whiskey. The town’s sheriff is Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman), a man whose sense of right and wrong is cast in stone but whose methods of dispensing justice are brutal in the extreme. He determines to give no leeway to any gunmen attempting to claim the prostitute’s reward, thus setting the scene for an explosive showdown.

Eastwood said he wanted to bury the western with this film, the script for which had apparently been knocking around Hollywood for the best part of 20 years, and he couldn’t have found a better film with which to achieve his aim. There are no heroes in this film, and the differences between good and bad are deliberately blurred. Munney is ostensibly a good man, a pig farmer struggling to bring up his children following the death of his beloved wife. In the first half of the film he repeatedly insists that he is a changed man, that he is like normal people — but there’s always that sense of a man trying to convince himself of the fact, and that he’s not entirely sure that what he says is true. Hackman is a rigid upholder of the law, but by anyone’s standards he is a harsh and brutal man, inflicting unnecessary punishment on those he considers to have broken a law designed to protect the innocent. But the true downtrodden innocents here aren’t the honest townsfolk — they’re the town whores, usually depicted as representatives of debauchery or comedy figures. Murder isn’t a quick and spectacular event — it’s a long, drawn-out panicky suffering, or it’s a couple of bullets in the chest when you’re sitting on the loo. All the genre staples are turned on their head here and, in doing so, writer David Webb Peoples fashions a tale that delivers an unremittingly bleak and depressing message that is never anything less than totally absorbing.

Eastwood delivers a nicely measured performance as William Munney. There are traces of his former western characters in the laid-back delivery and gruff impatience. Eastwood looks like a man who has lived on the plains of the old west, he appears to have allowed himself to grow old naturally, and thus possesses the weathered features necessary for the part, as does Morgan Freeman in another convincing performance as Eastwood’s old partner who finds that retirement has changed him in ways that it hasn’t changed Munney. Gene Hackman gives a performance worthy of the Oscar it won him; every scene in which he appears is filled with tension as we are given glimpses of the touch of madness that lurks beneath the surface. Daggett is as crooked as the house he is building — looks reasonably OK from the outside but on the inside all manner of stuff has leaked in.

It will be a great shame if Eastwood truly has hung up his spurs when it comes to making Westerns. He has an instinctive nose for a good story and is one of the few actors with the clout to get westerns made in an age when they are out of vogue. We can only wonder at how many good westerns have failed to be made because of his decision to turn his back on them.

(Reviewed 27th September 2005)