Release Date: August 7, 1992
Director: Clint Eastwood
Production Company: Malpaso Productions
This is a grim movie. I remember when it came out in the early 90s, it was hailed as the return of the Western. But thematically, Unforgiven is out to undercut every trope of the Western, especially ideas of heroism and honor among gunslingers or small-town sheriffs.
Clint Eastwood stars as Will Munny, a notorious gunslinger who settled down after marrying. When we meet him at the beginning of the movie he is widower with two young children on a pig farm, 11 years removed from his days of drunkeness and violence. The naïve (and nearsighted) Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett) tracks down Will to recruit him to collect a bounty from prostitutes in a brothel against two cowboys who cut up the face of one of the women. Initially reluctant to return to the sinful life, Will changes his mind because he realizes his farm is failing and he needs the money for his children. He recruits his old partner Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman) to join in as well.
Meanwhile, the sadistic sheriff of Big Whisky, Wyoming, “Little” Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman), the man who let the two cowboys go without punishment, is determined to prevent gunslingers from disturbing the peace in his town. This is displayed most viscerally in an extended sequence when Little Bill captures and then brutally beats the hired gun English Bob (played brilliantly by Richard Harris). Things are set up for severe bloodshed and tragedy.
This movie has a big problem with its depiction of women. Will’s wife is repeatedly discussed as an angel with magical powers of repentance but as she’s dead she never speaks for herself. Ned’s Native American wife is seen, staring scornfully at Will, but she never speaks either. Delilah (Anna Thomson), the prostitute who is the victim of the face-cutting that initiates all the other violence, seems to not want the other woman to raise a bounty on her behalf and willing to accept a horse as an apology from the cowboys, but she isn’t able to speak for herself in these situations.
Another theme of this movie is aging and the weight of the past. I find it interesting that Eastwood, Hackman, and Harris were all around 60 years old when the movie was made and all got their start in ultraviolent New Hollywood movies of the 60s & 70s. Freeman is a bit younger and didn’t gain widespread fame until the 80s. Ned seems more instantly likeable (because he’s Morgan Freeman) but also the one who doesn’t seem weighed down by his past.
This is well-made, beautifully-filmed movie with an excellent script as well. The acting is top notch, especially Hackman and Harris as well as Saul Rubinek as W. W. Beauchamp, a toady-esque writer who attaches himself first to English Bob and then to Little Bill as he fabricates heroic tales of the Old West. The movie naturally spirals into a whirlpool of violence and vengeance, but that doesn’t make it any easier to watch.