Oscar Movie Month: "Unforgiven" Review


Oscar Movie Month: "Unforgiven" Review

-- Rating: R
Length: 131 minutes
Release Date: August 7, 1992
Directed by: Clint Eastwood
Genre: Western

The modern world does not provide promising soil to explore the major themes of the human experience. Where in the civilized lands today should one look for narratives that can speak of redemption, or of the righteous quest for a well-deserved revenge to be played out against an epic backdrop of sweeping scenery and colorful personalities? No, in exchange for antibiotics and painless dentistry the modern world demands a turn away from the ancient story of vengeance and the noble quest. This great shift in the culture has taken a century or more to accomplish, and lies at the root of the modern appeal of the western as a genre.

In the little western town of Big Whiskey, the local cathouse is rocked by the disfiguring of one of its girls. When Big Whiskey's sheriff, Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman) doesn't solve the case to the gals' satisfaction they turn instead to Will Munny (Clint Eastwood) and the Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett) for justice. Will is a washed-up old gunslinger whose effort to reform ended with his marriage, and Schofield is a hungry young gun who wouldn't pass up the bounty being offered. Together they blaze a trail across the west in search of a sinner more dangerous than they know.

The cast of "Unforgiven" is a masterpiece. It seems that 1992, the year "Unforgiven" was released, was just the right moment in film history to let some of the greatest western actors play older versions of the characters they once defined. Clint Eastwood owns the part of Will Munny as if he expected this role to be the one mentioned in his obituary. Morgan Freeman brings his customary dignity and class to the role of Ned Logan, and Gene Hackman, who was already famous for his amazing performances in movies like "Nevada Smith" decades before, delivers a performance worthy of the Best Supporting Actor Oscar it won for him.

Clint Eastwood set Hollywood on fire with "Unforgiven." When Eastwood sat down in the director's chair for this film, the word on the street was that the studio was nervous. Eastwood had never taken on a project like "Unforgiven" before, and when tens of millions of dollars are riding on a project, studio executives have a way of forgetting "A Fistful of Dollars" and "The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly," while remembering that their ingénue was also second-fiddle in "Paint Your Wagon".

They needn't have worried. "Unforgiven" is directed by Eastwood with force and precision. Nothing escapes his notice, not even the expressions on the faces of his actors as they deliver the lines of a frankly average script like they're taking cough medicine. Somehow, it works, and when new life is breathed into an old genre, an old cast, and a narrative as old as time, it's usually to the credit of the director. Eastwood definitely earned the Academy Award for Best Director for his work on "Unforgiven".

The sets and costume design of "Unforgiven" are straight western-standard. It's as if the production design team had looked around for surplus props from "Bonanza" and "Little House On the Prairie" and just loaded them onto a truck bound for "Scenic Western Vista #17". Here are the storefronts, there are the gulches, up yonder are the requisite mesas and arroyos; sets such as these could hardly be avoided in a western, but somehow it seems a project with the scope and power of "Unforgiven" deserved more than the typical sets and clothes.

However, all is not lost, as the lighting and cinematography ride to the rescue by lighting the familiar old sets with a gritty color scheme and achieve a sharp, shadow-free sense of surreal disconnection. It's as if the palette of this film wants to tell the audience that vengeance has taken on a life of its own and risen to change even the way that light falls on a horse's flank. This is largely the work of Jack N. Green, who was at least nominated for Best Cinematographer at the Oscars and BAFTA.

"Unforgiven" is easily the best western of its decade, and one of the 90's finest films. It has tremendous performances delivered by veteran actors who know their movie's story by heart before they even read the script, a tremendous budget and the colorful local talents who know what to do with it, and a director with something to prove.

Rating: 4 out of 5