|This movie won Oscars for Best Picture; Director (Clint Eastwood); Supporting Actor (Gene Hackman); and Editing.||
‘Unforgiven’ (R)By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
August 07, 1992
A prominent New York critic once declared Clint Eastwood "the last serious man in Hollywood." And Eastwood must have remembered it too, because his new western, "Unforgiven," is the kind of movie you make when you start to take this kind of praise to heart.
"Unforgiven" is Eastwood's 36th movie, and, with its impressive (and sadly under-used) supporting cast of Gene Hackman and Morgan Freeman, the actor-filmmaker's most ambitious shot yet at a "classic" western; that is, a western in the larger-than-life mythic tradition. But it's also a modern, revisionist western that attempts to debunk the myths and add an ingredient of moral and historical realism to the genre.
His approach is not a new one -- the '60s and '70s were brimming with anti-romantic westerns -- and neither is his story. Structurally, the picture -- which Eastwood produced and directed -- is a variation on the old story about the wicked gunslinger who hangs up his shootin' irons and puts a cork in his rye to tread the straight and narrow with his new wife. When we first meet William Munny (Eastwood), he's just managing to scrape by as a pig farmer and father. After his wife dies, though, Munny falls off the wagon hard; for three years, he wades waist-deep in the whiskey river.
And so, when a young would-be gunslinger (Jaimz Woolvett) shows up at Munny's place offering to split the $1,000 bounty for killing a couple of bad hombres who slashed up a prostitute's face, he decides to strap on his guns one last time and join up. From what Munny tells us, this is a little like Charles Manson coming out of retirement. By his own admission, he was a bad man, an indiscriminate killer legendary for his ferocity. Yet we have only Munny's word and Eastwood's flash-frozen snarl as proof of what he was before his transformation.
What we're supposed to feel is the spiritual agony of a reformed man who, once again, is forced to confront the demons of his past, in particular his own murderousness. And if Eastwood had any emotional depth as an actor, the character's anguish might come through.
By now, though, Eastwood has little more than a paint-by-numbers approach to acting. As a result, we relate to Munny more as a compendium of Eastwood's earlier characters, especially the "Man With No Name" he played in the Sergio Leone westerns, than as a living person.
What Eastwood does with that anti-character here is similar to what Sean Connery did with the James Bond character in "Never Say Never Again" or what Sam Peckinpah did with the aging western heroes in "Ride the High Country." It's the portrait of a hero past his prime, the lone outlaw humbled by age. It's this self-referential aspect of Eastwood playing against his own myth, I think, that has created the illusion of depth for some critics, and Eastwood is intentionally and perhaps apologetically asking us to reexamine along with him the hero he created. But instead of actually exploring the character psychologically, Eastwood chooses to lay a veneer of political correctness over him.
For about seven-eighths of the film, the tension comes from Eastwood refusing to become Eastwood. He may be willing to kill one last time so that his kids will have a better future, but he's not the same man he was before. Killing has taken its spiritual toll. Munny helps prostitutes now, says no to booze and has a black sidekick, Ned (played unspectacularly by Morgan Freeman in yet another buddy role). Heck, he won't even sleep with a whore when a freebie is offered, out of faithfulness to his dead wife. And, so, for about seven-eighths of the movie we wonder just when, exactly, the explosion is going to come.
Sure enough, Munny finally takes action, but only after he's pushed to the wall and has no choice. Some writers have called "Unforgiven" Eastwood's "High Noon," but it's really closer to being his "Billy Jack." Though the whole thrust of the movie is that killing is hard, that every bullet is a wound to the killer's own soul, the men that Munny guns down seem to die pretty easily.
So much for political correctness.
The point that Munny lashes out only when provoked in extremis rings hollow. We know why Munny finally draws his gun, and it's not because he was forced to; it's because it's inconceivable that Eastwood could play a western hero who didn't. Munny is trapped by the past, but it's not his own past -- it's Eastwood's.
The other actors here are obliged to do the best they can with their sketchy characters. The dime novelist Beauchamp (Saul Rubinek) plays the symbolic role of the storyteller. He writes romantic hagiographic books about the heroic exploits of western figures like English Bob (Richard Harris, who exits the film almost as soon as he makes his entrance), a professional gunman who shows up to collect the bounty and is promptly run out of town by Daggett (Gene Hackman), the sheriff of Big Whiskey, Wyo.
Daggett is a legend in his own right from his previous exploits in Abilene, Dodge City and other lawless towns, and as sheriff he runs a tight ship, forbidding anyone to carry firearms across the town limits. And Hackman does a worthy job of communicating both the sheriff's determination to run a clean town and his pompous eccentricities. The actor makes Daggett's conceit seem comic, especially when he cries out just before dying, "I don't deserve this. . . . I just built a house."
In interviews, Eastwood has said that perhaps this movie is the last in which he will appear as an actor, and it wouldn't be a bad way for him to bow out (especially if you consider the caliber of his most recent films). The picture does seem like a kind of summing up; it's Eastwood's final word on the western, and, in turn, on himself. The filmmaker has even dedicated his work to "Sergio and Don," meaning Sergio Leone and Don Siegel ("Dirty Harry"), the two directors who helped bring his most memorable characters to life. Ironically, though, "Unforgiven" fails to live up to the examples of either model. Eastwood's a serious man, all right, but, unfortunately, seriousness without an equal portion of talent is a mixed blessing.
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