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This movie won Oscars for Best Picture; Director (Clint Eastwood); Supporting Actor (Gene Hackman); and Editing.

‘Unforgiven’ (R)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
August 07, 1992

It comes late in the movie and, coming from Clint Eastwood's steel-trap mouth, it's sweet music. "Any man don't wanna get killed," he warns a saloon full of armed varmints, "better clear on out the back." In "Unforgiven," his trembling opponents don't need a second push. They stampede through the door . . .

This is Big Whiskey, Wyo., 1880, and these men (including Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman and Richard Harris) are living in a Western just like they used to make. But the movie's fitted for the '90s too. In this modish world of blow-dried drug dealers, Uzi weaponry and odd-couple cop partners, a six-gun yarn set in the last century better hold its own. Thanks to Eastwood's relaxed direction and David Webb Peoples's savvy script, it does -- and more besides.

"Unforgiven" exults in the hard-riding romanticism of classic Westerns, but it takes revisionist stock too. It dismounts at places usually left in the dust -- the oppressed lot of women, the loneliness of untended children, adult illiteracy and the horrible last moments of the dying. Never did deaths count so much in a gun-slinging drama; never did shooting a man come so hard.

A former outlaw with a violent past, Eastwood gave up the guns and the whiskey long ago, when he got married. Now a widower with two kids, he faithfully maintains his dead wife's clean-living values. But things change when the Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett) invites him on a bounty hunt. Seems a whore got cut up bad in Big Whiskey and the girls up there are putting up $1,000 to catch the two slashers.

The hogs are dying, he's out of money, the kids need providing for and there hasn't been a good Western in ages. Hooking up with erstwhile partner Freeman, Eastwood heads semi-reluctantly for Big Whiskey, the Kid with them. While his mission remains mercenary, he holds his evil ways in abeyance. But when he comes up against brutal sheriff Hackman, things will get mighty personal.

"Unforgiven" jumps adroitly between the macho and anti-macho, the romantic and anti-romantic. At one point, Eastwood has shot someone. The bleeding man crawls behind a rock, his life ebbing away. He begs for water. But his partners can't help him -- they're pinned down by Eastwood's trio. Finally, Eastwood -- who hasn't felt great about shooting this guy -- can't take it anymore: "Get him a drink of water, godammit!" he yells.

The grim wryness extends to Big Whiskey too, where Hackman has a blast as the sadistic, all but psychotic sheriff. And he takes his talented, edgy time doing it. As a murderous English shyster breezing through town, Harris brings his been-to-hell-and-back presence to bear. As a bespectacled dime-store novelist writing Harris's vanity biography, Saul Rubinek provides entertainingly nerdy counterpoint.

The finale, in which all moral safeties are taken off and the barrels get to blaze, is more of a blood-justice conclusion then a heroic shootout. Travis Bickle of "Taxi Driver" seems to be hovering somewhere in the ether. That things don't end gloriously, that morals lie dangling, is all to the movie's credit. There's a price to killing, we're being shown, that never quite gets paid.

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