Thursdays come around pretty quickly, do they not? It seems only yesterday I was babbling on excessively about Chinatown and now, here we are, forging new frontiers yet again in October. This month is shaping up to be one of the most eclectic groups of films I’ve yet had on this blog, which is kind of cool (or I hope it is, maybe it’s really not. People are probably disappointed that I’ve gone the non-horror route this month. . .). Life is full of grim realities, as is evidenced in
Today’s food for thought: Unforgiven.
Enforcing that pesky ‘no-guns’ ordinance since: Friday, August 7, 1992
So I blindly stumbled into 1992’s Best Picture winner, not realizing it had picked up any awards, let alone taken home top honors and garnered several others including Best Director, Best Supporting Actor and Best Editing. I’m glad I watched it without this knowledge. I didn’t have my viewing experience tainted by the lofty expectations brought on by Best Picture winners. I did, however, have a sneaking suspicion it was a sure-fire winner for Best Cinematography, for the film’s romanticism for the old west is impossible to ignore. Alas, that was only one of its nine nominations.
Clint Eastwood produced, directed and starred in this harsh, uncompromising vision of life on the frontier, specifically 1880s Wyoming. His last Western, Unforgiven tells the bleak story about a farmer with a dark history who gets roped into collecting one more bounty after a group of prostitutes in the town of Big Whiskey are shaken up by some thugs who get off lightly thanks to the local sheriff. Rather than making the cowboys pay with their own blood for disfiguring one of the girls, Sheriff Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman, earning his second Oscar) decides they will find a suitable number of horses to give to the brothel owner, a total of seven horses fit for hard labor. Infuriated by the injustice, Strawberry Alice (Frances Fisher) announces a cash reward for whomever can find and kill the men responsible.
Decrepit old pig farmer Will Munny (Eastwood) was once one of the most feared men in the midwest, known for ruthlessly killing men, women and children alike. When he met his wife he vowed to change his ways, although she passed away before the film opens, leaving him vulnerable once more to the loneliness and despair of bachelorhood on the prairie. Word about the bounty travels fast and Will finds he could really use the money (I can only imagine how long you could make $1,000 last back in the 1800s . . . ). After telling his children he’ll be back “in a couple weeks” he rides south, headed for an old accomplice and friend’s homestead, one Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman).
On their ride the pair encounter an excitable young cowboy nicknamed ‘The Schofield Kid’ (Jaimz Woolvett) who doesn’t exactly view killing the same way the older and jaded Ned and Will do. Whereas he can’t wait to kill the sumbitches responsible, the other two, haunted by violent pasts, anticipate and to some extent dread what they will soon have to do. Meanwhile in Big Whiskey, a town that strictly prohibits visitors to carry guns on their person, Daggett has to contend with the contemptible English Bob (Richard Harris), who’s come to town in hopes that he’ll get to claim the cash reward. His out-of-town status is made amply clear on the virtue that he believes the superiority of the British royalty is based upon how easy it is for an American president to get shot and killed (the assassination of President Garfield has just made the papers).
Indeed, English Bob is a bit of an annoyance, but he’s all bluster compared to the aggressive sheriff, who takes pleasure in kicking Bob all around the town after he refuses to hand over his firearms to the proper authorities, and subsequently kicking him out of town. In a single scene a couple of things become clear: 1) Big Whiskey is a well-defended and hostile little community; and 2) Gene Hackman deserved that Oscar. His law enforcer is a real bad seed, Hackman’s penchant for intimidating characters culminating in the dastardly Daggett.
Unforgiven is a departure from many western films and violent films in general in that rather than glorifying and exaggerating the violent nature of survival in supposedly simpler times, it emphasizes the personal toll it takes on someone who has killed, be it for survival or in self-defense. Killing just for the sake of killing isn’t the issue here. The difference between the Schofield Kid’s lust for blood (in a fireside scene he boasts about killing five men already despite his age) and the older men’s reluctance to keep pulling the trigger comes under scrutiny as they inch ever closer to their destiny. Eastwood, the director, emphasizes subtlety and ruminates on the extreme nature of killing. “It’s a hell of a thing, to kill a man. Take away everything he’s got, everything he will ever have,” Will says to the deeply disturbed Schofield Kid in the aftermath of a shoot-out.
The delicate treatment of life and death is handled brilliantly in said scene, where the trio come across their targets in a shallow canyon and stalk them out. In a western, it’s all too natural to expect the scene to erupt into a battle of bullets and bloodshed, but Eastwood keeps it contained. As one of the cowboys slowly bleeds out, from around a protective hill Will asks one of his fellow riders to give him some water, an act of compassion that, rather than softening the film, bolsters Unforgiven‘s comity.
As a result, the action that pops up sporadically — this film is also restrained in terms of how often it breaks into fits of chaos and one-upmanship, as these things often do — hits much harder. Because we learn to respect the violence when it happens, it’s that much more difficult to watch Daggett lash out (literally) against those who defy him. This isn’t to say Unforgiving is a bloodless picture, of course, but Eastwood deserves credit for recognizing the difference between effective depictions of violence and simple mind-numbing excess. In a time when civilization was more obviously defined by responses to matters of life-and-death, it’s refreshing to journey back to that time where seemingly more trivial concepts like decency, courtesy and respect have more of a role.
Eastwood’s final journey out on to the frontier manifests as a thoroughly enjoyable, occasionally jarring and often somber adventure that has far more intelligence than the typical shoot-’em-up. And the final showdown between Will and Daggett confirms once again that there is no one more badass than Clint Eastwood.
Recommendation: A restrained picture in terms of how it depicts violence and stages action set pieces, Unforgiven is a unique western that reminds one far more of a psychological drama than anything John Wayne or Paul Newman might have starred in. Well-acted and beautifully shot, this is a trip well worth taking if you haven’t seen it before and are curious about one of the last truly great westerns.
Running Time: 131 mins.
TBTrivia: Only the third western to ever win the Best Picture Oscar. The other two being Dances with Wolves (1990) and Cimarron (1931).
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