Thursday, June 14, 2012

CANON OF FILM: "UNFORGIVEN"

UNFORGIVEN (1992)

Director: Clint Eastwood
Screenplay: David Webb Peoples



“Unforgiven,” is often referred to as the last great Western. It’s certainly the last universally-accepted essential Western. The last one to earn wide acclaim from people, critics, and especially awards, winning numerous Oscars including two for Clint Eastwood for Best Picture and Best Director. The film is a culmination for Eastwood, who had long transitioned from his iconic antiestablishment image of Westerns like “The Good, The Bad and the Ugly,” and “A Fistful of Dollars,” and even of modern day Westerns with his “Dirty Harry,” persona to becoming arguably more well-known, being one of the Greatest American Directors of the last half-century. In the last decade, he’s given us “Mystic River,” “Million Dollar Baby,” Letters From Iwo Jima,” “Flags of Our Fathers,” “Changeling,” and “Gran Torino”, often working at an exceptionally quick rate of two films a year all while over the age of 70, and nearing the age of 80. This film doesn’t mark the beginning of him as a director, that started with “Play Misty for Me,” and included such accomplishments as “The Outlaw Josey Wales,” “Bird,” and “Pale Rider,” but this was the end of the iconic screen persona he had molded and created up until now. He’d still act occasionally, including an Oscar nomination for “Million Dollar Baby,” but Eastwood is truly an artist, with an unusually clear mind and great forethought of what his films should be. Yet, I still come to “Unforgiven,” with some grievances, as I do with many westerns. The movie begins and ends with prologues and epilogues that focused more on the life of William Mummy’s (Eastwood) dead wife than they deal with anything involving the story of plot. Morgan Freeman as “Ned LeRoy” seems like unusual casting for a Western, and even the part seems surprisingly marginalized and trivial. His character is married to a Native American who isn’t given a single line of dialogue (Although, we do know what she is thinking). There’s an entire subplot involving a British gunfighter, English Bob (Richard Harris) and his biographer, W.W. Beachamp (Saul Rubinek) who travels around with him, writing on the Old West gunfighters and myths, often creating them with a poetic flash that completely contradicts the actual events, and sometimes the legend. These stories begin to get contradicted by the local evil Sheriff Little Bill (Oscar-winner Gene Hackman). After Little Bill lets a couple ranchers go after they repeated stabbed and raped a brothel girl Delilah (Anna Thomas), the whores, led by Alice (Frances Fisher) put a bounty on their heads, and Munny and LeRoy along with a young gunslinger wannabe, the Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett), head out to collect. Munny has two kids and many hogs to take care of, and he can barely get on his horse, but he has a past that disgusts even the villains of this film. A machine of death, once a man who’s without prejudice murdered anything that moved, including women and children, but for Munny, that was a long time ago, or so he thinks. This movie is slow, not unusual for a western or an Eastwood picture, granted, and I personally wonder about some of the lines of dialogue, believability-wise. Yet, unlike many westerns, the film is an intriguing character study of Munny. It’s a film about a man who must slowly find his old self, which he knows all too well he shouldn’t be doing. In the beginning of the movie, despite all the claims, it’s hard to imagine him as the vicious killer everyone claims he was, but by the last showdown in the saloon, it isn’t. This is great subtle acting by Eastwood, maybe the best of his career. When I first saw “Unforgiven,” I wasn’t impressed. The plot in of itself wasn’t particularly new, and I found, and still find many of the wandering subplots unnecessary, the biographer and English Bob characters seemed to almost come from another movie. By the second and third viewings, I was completely absorbed into the film, and now it’s one of those movies I watch whenever it’s on, engrossing me every time. We care more about the transformation of our protagonist, not because he is good, but because we realize how he struggles to be good. Severely flawed and severely aware of it, Munny is Eastwood’s most enduring character, preciously because unlike Dirty Harry and The Man With No Name, he isn’t iconic.  
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