Unforgiven (1992)

on August 07, 1992 by BOXOFFICE Staff
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Roll over Kevin Costner, and take your overlong, picture-postcard, politically correct, "new age" horse opera with you. The western has found it's true renewal not in your Oscar-winning vanity project but in the hands of a man who was born to do the job, an actor/director who just might be the last genre classicist at work in American film. His name is Clint Eastwood, and his dual achievement in "Unforgiven," as both a director and an icon of American movie culture, is a film that can stand proudly in the rarefied company of the very best westerns ever made.
   Will Munny (Eastwood) is a reformed desperado turned pig farmer, a widowed, single father raising two children alone in the vast emptiness of the Colorado range. His late wife reformed him, and his current existence seems like one long act of penance dedicated to her memory, a protracted atonement for the viciousness of his youth.
   Drawn to Munny by his reputation, a young would-be gunslinger (Jaimz Woolvett) shows up with an offer for Munny to join him in a bounty killing. It seems two drunken cowhands disfigured a whore with a butcher knife, and the women she works with are offering a thousand dollars to anyone who'll make them pay for the crime with their lives.
   Munny agrees to the job -- the cash will help raise his children -- but his naive belief that he can return to his old ways without paying a personal and psychological price soon proves illusory. Pitted against gunslinger-turned-lawman Little Bill Daggett (a terrific Gene Hackman), and with the help of his old partner Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman, solid in what's becoming a standard role), Munny is forced to face up to the dark legacy of his former life, and to suffer once more for all the blood on his hands.
   Not since 1971's "McCabe and Mrs. Miller" have a director and a screenwriter so unflinchingly deglamorized the mythological notions of western heroism as Eastwood and David Webb Peoples ("Blade Runner") do here. Uncompromisingly subverting his own screen persona by depicting Munny as a bushwacking coward afraid of his past, Eastwood pushes beyond even the perversity and cartoon iconoclasm of the Sergio Leone-directed spaghetti westerns which made him a star. In his stylized, almost operatic vision, Leone was able partially to redeem the Old West mythos by using the trappings of "realism" and by making Eastwood's "Man With No Name" just enough of an anti-hero to seem like a radical break with the John Wayne tradition. But Leone's films flirted with moral ambiguity without truly embracing it; in the last analysis, it was always clear just who was good, who was bad and who was ugly, as the most famous Leone title would have it, and the hyped-up, comic book technique served to aggrandize the characters rather than to render them life-sized. In "Unforgiven," Eastwood resolutely refuses to pander to the West of our imagination; he finds his drama in the life and death struggles of cruel, often cowardly men who die ignominious deaths, or else are forced to live with the damning ramifications of unlivable actions.
   Though dedicated to the memory of Leone and Don Seigel, "Unforgiven" owes little to the terse, comic book style of Eastwood's two directorial mentors. Like John Huston (whom he memorialized in "White Hunter, Black Heart"), Eastwood has developed into a mature and self-effacing craftsman, whose lack of visual pretension makes it easy to overlook the consumate skill he displays. There is nothing gratuitous or imitative about "Unforgiven," but the aesthetic choices -- pictorially, thematically and psychologically -- are definitively the work of a single vision.
   Like the greatest of western directors -- and un like the poseurs who have used the form of late predominantly as an opportunity to mimic the masters -- Eastwood's perspective on history, genre, and even his own legacy as the last enduring western star is a unique and personal one. Like Ford, Hawks, Peckinpah, and Anthony Mann, in "Unforgiven," Eastwood speaks in his own voice, he remains his own man. Anyone who still refuses to believe that Eastwood has matured into one of our finest filmmakers can take "Unforgiven" for the living proof which the notoriously reticent Eastwood would never offer up in his own behalf. With "Unforgiven," his case is made; his achievement vouches for him.
Ray Greene Warner Bros. 131 min.
Tags: Clint Eastwood, western, revenge, murder, honor, abuse, police, brothel, writer, gunslinger, David Webb Peoples, Sergio Leone, Don Siegel
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