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UNFORGIVEN

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Clint Eastwood, Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman, Richard Harris, Jaimz Wolvett
Director:  Clint Eastwood
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Stereo
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio:  Warner Bros.
Features:  See Review
Length:  131 Minutes
Release Date:  September 24, 2002

"I don't deserve this!"

"Deserve's got nothing to do with it."

Film ***1/2

Clint Eastwood has long been a favorite director in Hollywood, largely for his reputation of always finishing his films on time and under budget.  Though one could argue that his overall body of work ranges a bit quality-wise, there are at least two pictures of his that deserve mention as classics of the late twentieth century:  his jazz legend biopic Bird, and Unforgiven.  The latter earned four Oscars, including Best Picture and Director, and can be called one of the most significant films of the 90’s.  Though it was written by David Webb Peoples, one gets the feeling watching it that it is still somehow singularly Eastwood’s statement about morality and the Western genre. 

Western films have always featured gunplay between the good guys and bad guys, but traditionally, it was kind of a softened violence.  You shoot somebody, he falls down cleanly.  No pain, no blood, and no real responsibility or consequence placed anywhere.  When maverick director Sam Peckinpah arrived on the scene, he gave the world a taste of a Western movie most weren’t ready for:  one where bullets actually hurt and spilled blood, and one where the killer often had to watch his dying prey struggle for a last breath.

Eastwood has taken that notion a step further in his film, which has a strong sense of morality at its center, but a lot of confusion on the surface.  He plays Will Munny, an aging farmer who looks and sounds nothing like the heartless gunslinger he’s reputed to be.  Throughout the films, we learn bits and pieces of the Munny legend, but have a hard time ascribing it to this careworn man who can barely ride a horse now.  “I ain’t like that anymore,” he meagerly protests over and over again.

He laid down his guns a long time ago, but facing a bad season at the farm, reluctantly agrees to pick them up again at the bidding of a young would-be assassin (Wolvett).  A reward is being offered by a group of prostitutes in the town of Big Whiskey to anyone who’ll kill the two cowboys who disfigured one of their own.  These ladies had looked to the town’s sheriff, Little Bill (Hackman), for justice, but the only justice he sought was for the saloon owner who lost a source of income because of the cut up woman. 

Will collects his old partner, Ned (Freeman), and the trio ride together to carry out the ignoble deed.  But it won’t be easy.  Another legendary assassin, English Bob (Harris), has already met Little Bill’s unwelcome wagon in a brutal way.

I mentioned confusion on the surface, and one of the interesting aspects of the film is the deliberate blurring of good vs. bad, lines that are usually very clearly drawn in Westerns.  Little Bill is the sheriff, but he seems to believe in a Fascist approach to peacekeeping:  law and order through fear and brutality.  Munny is a hired gun and outlaw, reported to have killed even women and children at the height of his career, but we don’t see him as he was then; we see him as he is now:  a broken, guilt ridden man being dragged into a past he’s tried to forget.

And, of course, there’s the matter of killing itself, which in this picture, is depicted mostly realistically:  harsh, ugly, and with consequences.  The movie’s most famous scene comes after the kid has killed his first man.  He had bragged all along that he was more of a cold blooded killer than Munny, but afterwards, he’s shaken by what he’s done.  It was a lot different than he expected.  “They had it coming,” he sobs into a whiskey bottle.  “We all have it coming, kid,” is Will’s solemn reply.

The only complaint I have about the picture…and it’s a small one…is in the final confrontation between Will and Little Bill and his men, which involves a rather cartoonish approach to a shootout (hint:  one against five) that would seem more at home in an Eastwood Western of old—NOT in a film that’s made such a potent statement about the reality of violence.  Though I liked the fact that Will Munny only truly reverted to his old self out of personal reasons…not for the money.

Overall, though, this film is indeed worth of the accolades it received, and one more I would like to offer:  this is one of Clint Eastwood’s finest performances ever.  His acting is largely what makes Munny so real to us, and thereby makes the movie’s message that much more powerful.  But the entire cast is first rate, starting with Gene Hackman, who earned his second Academy Award for his work in this film.  And, of course, the always excellent Morgan Freeman and Richard Harris, who has a couple of the movie’s best scenes.

Another touch I liked was Saul Rubinek as the writer, who first follows English Bob, then Little Bill, then seems to want to pick up with Will Munny in the end.  He writes about these men in an almost epic, poetic way, and seems to be almost a living symbol of what Hollywood has done to the Old West…an ironic point, considering how clearly we can see that there’s nothing noble or heroic about what ANY of these men do.

As such, we may have our legends of Wyatt Earp, of Billy the Kid, of Jesse James and Pat Garrett today…and those legends will likely live on as long as people are around to repeat the story.  But it is Unforgiven that dares to strip these kinds of tales of their glamour, and present us with a harder version of the truth:  one that may not make as friendly a story, but one that is ultimately more challenging, thought provoking, and rewarding.

Video ***1/2

The brand new transfer offered with this anniversary special edition is alone worth re-purchasing the disc for.  Previous DVD releases of this title were problematic; Warner gets it right this time.  Shots that used to be dingy, soft and grainy (mostly the low-lit sequences at the climax) are much cleaner and offer better detail, while grain is minimalized.  The lighter shots were never much of a problem, and like before, Jack N. Green's stunning cinematography shines beautifully in them.  This is how Unforgiven should have always looked.

Audio ***

The 5.1 digital soundtrack is quite good.  The rear channels are mostly used for ambient outdoor effects, such as water running, birds chirping, and so on, but comes into better play during the movie’s gunfight sequences.  The front stage represents a good clean mix, where dialogue is always clear and the score by Lennie Niehaus plays beautifully, with occasional strong moments that add dynamic range.  The .1 channel remains inactive for long periods of time, but comes to life nicely during shoot outs, as well as a key thunderstorm sequence.

Features ****

At last, this disc is given the extras treatment it deserves as well.  Disc One, along with the movie, contains the original trailer, an awards list, highlights of Eastwood's films, and a loving running commentary by critic and Eastwood biographer Richard Schickel, offering some quiet but insightful thoughts on the themes and ideas behind the picture.

Disc Two contains three featurettes:  a brand new one, "All on Accounta Pullin' a Trigger", featuring fresh interviews with Eastwood, Freeman, Hackman and others, a current-at-the time one "Eastwood & Co.", with some behind-the-scenes footage and narrated by Hal Holbrook, and "Eastwood...A Star", penned by Richard Schickel.  The disc also features the excellent full length "Eastwood on Eastwood" documentary, which is about the best and most insightful stretch of film an Eastwood fan could ask for (narrated by John Cusack).

Rounding out is the Maverick television episode "Duel at Sundown", featuring a small role for you-know-who.  A terrific package all around!

Summary:

Unforgiven is a powerful, superb film that demonstrates a legendary actor and director at the top of his craft.  It should be considered one of the best Westerns ever made, and now Warner Bros. has finally treated it as such with this fantastic new double disc special edition.  A must own.