The Good: Decent acting, Decent plot development
The Bad: Very average plot and character arcs, Light on DVD bonus features.
The Basics: An average film and an average Western, Unforgiven is entertaining, but is not extraordinary, even on DVD.
I've never been much of a fan of Western films, in fact it is almost surprising how much I enjoyed The Adventures Of Brisco County, Jr. (reviewed here!). So, it is only because of my current writing project that I actually sat down and watched Unforgiven. I've generally not been a fan of Westerns because they tend to depict women in a pretty negative light and I tend to find that less-than-entertaining. I'd rather not watch films where women are treated so poorly. I tend to not to be into pretty monolithic character arcs where the villains are villains and the protagonists might have a dark past, but they're working on making right with the world.
Unforgiven is just that type of movie. I thought the movie would be like a Western version of Payback and it largely was. This is a film where the hero, Will, is characterized as a cold-blooded killer in the opening scrawl, but whose first appearance in the movie is anything but. The sheriff, the supposed good guy, is corrupt and there is little moral ambiguity in his brutality. This is very much a typical Western with growling men, women who depend upon them and plenty of gunplay. And it's all right - I might even enjoy watching it again at some point - but Unforgiven seems to trade more on the novelty of Clint Eastwood returning to Western films (and directing it) than anything truly original.
Two years after his wife dies of smallpox, William Munny, is living his life as a reformed killer and hired gun. In Big Whiskey, Wyoming, a pair of cowboys is at the local bordello when one of the men goes psychopathic on his hooker and begins cutting her up. When the local sheriff, Little Bill, demands the brothel's owner be given seven horses from the two men, the women are furious. They put out notice that they will pay $1,000 to anyone who kills the two outlaws who cut up their friend and co-worker. A young wannabe outlaw, The Schofield Kid, arrives at Will's house and convinces him to join him to avenge the wounded prostitute. Will goes south, gets his friend Ned and the two reunite with the nearly-blind Schofield Kid.
In Big Whiskey, Little Bill takes on the famed outlaw English Bob, in the process impressing Bob's biographer, W.W. Beauchamp. While working to build his own house, he learns of the posse gunning for the two cowboys and he decides he must get involved for the good of Big Whiskey. But as Will, Ned and The Schofield Kid close in on their quarries, they come to realize their biggest liabilities might be their own desires to reform or gain notoriety.
Unforgiven is not a bad movie, but it is also in no way an extraordinary film in terms of plot or character development, nor of cinematography. Instead, this is a by-the-numbers revenge tale set in the Old West of the United States where the characters are shady, everyone has a past and virtually everyone has a story that involves a history with gun fighting. Will and Ned are former partners, so when Will realizes he is so out of practice, he immediately looks up Ned to take on the same task of revenge-for-money that he is on. And because it is That Type Of Movie where moral ambiguity reigns and men are generally monolithic, Ned easily takes "an advance" from one of the hookers, despite being married.
The plot is very formulaic and basic; this is a hunt story where the characters hunt for men who have done wrong and, in the process, find themselves hunted by the law themselves. Unforgiven takes time for a pointless divergence with the whole English Bob story and all this does is make absolutely clear that Little Bill, in addition to being as pretty crummy carpenter, is a pretty lousy sheriff. In addition to seeming like the English Bob story just distracts from the main narrative and only serves to introduce Beauchamp and leave him in Little Bill's company, the movie becomes a tough sell for a serious cinephile because it is predictable.
As far as the character work goes, this is another movie where the opening crawl, which establishes key elements of character for William, says far too much. Indeed, it is tough to see why Eastwood bothered with it considering that the rest of the movie is pretty much the unfolding of the character elements which are implied in the first few moments of the movie. The prologue and epilogue are not essential to the film and they largely distract the viewer from actual character development; the viewer just waits for what is implied to be made evident. As a result, Unforgiven is very much like A History Of Violence where other people reveal who the character once was and then they are faced with the dilemma of whether or not to devolve into that character again.
Clint Eastwood is decent as Will and Morgan Freeman is great as Ned, but the performances are well within the presumed range of either performer. Similarly, Gene Hackman plays yet another monolithic villain as sheriff Little Bill. The only one who actually surprised me was Saul Rubinek as Beauchamps. I've seen Rubinek in several other works and he plays the writer with an unassuming quality and a lack of cunning that I've not seen from him in any of his other roles. In other words, he is acting well, as opposed to simply being the product of inspired casting.
On DVD, Unforgiven comes with just the film and the theatrical trailer. The disc is double-sided with the widescreen presentation on one side and the standard presentation on the other.
So, for those looking for a decent, if average, Western revenge tale, Unforgiven has it . . . with little to distinguish it from others in the genre.
[As a winner of the Best Picture Oscar, this is part of my Best Picture Project online here! Please check it out!]
For other revenge movies, please check out my reviews of:
Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street
For other film reviews, please visit my index page for an organized list!
© 2011, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.