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#678 - Unforgiven
Clint Eastwood, 1992



A young gunslinger seeks out a retired outlaw to help him claim a bounty on a pair of cowboys who have disfigured a woman.

"Straightforward" is the ideal word to characterise Clint Eastwood's work as an actor and as a director, and Unforgiven is arguably the prime example of how well he works in both those regards. The Westerns he's directed have naturally tended to be revisionist ones, whether it's the twisted morality tale of High Plains Drifter or the deconstructive ensemble drama of The Outlaw Josey Wales. As of writing, Unforgiven is the last Western he's both acted in and directed and it definitely serves as quite the concluding statement to the man's work in the genre. As far as its deconstructive angle goes, it's pretty simple. The main story begins in the small town of Big Whiskey, where a cowboy has cut up the face of one of the prostitutes (Anna Levine) that works at the local saloon. Her colleagues want the law to come down hard on both the perpetrator and his friend, but the town sheriff (Gene Hackman) decides to fine the two men rather than resort to corporal punishment. Unhappy with the perceived miscarriage of justice, the prostitutes pool their resources to put up a bounty on both men, which starts to draw all sorts of attention. Eastwood himself plays a former outlaw who has given up his notoriously violent ways for the love of a good woman, settling down on a farm and raising two kids. The story begins a few years after his wife's passing, showing Eastwood trying to keep the farm afloat even as his pigs are becoming diseased. It is at this point where a fresh-faced young man (Jaimz Woolvert) arrives on his property with a proposition: team up with him in order to claim the aforementioned reward.

While the most obvious subversion of the Western genre would definitely be scenes featuring an iconic Western actor like Eastwood failing at even the most basic cowboy tasks such as firing a gun or mounting a horse, the deconstruction naturally runs a little deeper than that. There is definitely something disagreeable about the idea that the punishment for a woman being permanently disfigured amounts to a handful of horses being paid to the saloon owner who employs her, yet that doesn't quite seem to excuse the other women's decision to hire gunmen to straight-up murder both men (especially when the decision to post a bounty is made mainly by Frances Fisher as the headstrong and temperamental group leader, whose colleagues just go along with the plan). To this end, Hackman is set up to be a major antagonist with his extremely imbalanced dispensation of justice, especially when his lax punishment of the face-cutting cowboy is contrasted against his uncompromising beat-down and humiliation of a pompous English gunslinger (Richard Harris) who does nothing more than choose to disregard the town's strict no-guns-allowed policy. His life outside the job, where he is seen trying to fulfill a very American goal of building a house with his own two hands, indicates that he's much more complex than your typical corrupt sheriff; one can definitely find themselves questioning whether or not his hard-line tactics (as masked by his outwardly friendly demeanour) are actually effective or not, even though there's definitely something fundamentally tyrannical about the way he runs the town.

Western mythology and its creation is definitely a major theme that runs through Unforgiven, especially when it's understood within the universe of the film. The main reason that Woolvert seeks out Eastwood is due to the many stories he's heard about Eastwood's dark and troubled past, constantly expressing disbelief at the fact that the seemingly incompetent old man is the same one he's heard so much about. Meanwhile Eastwood only ever seems to reflect on his past deeds with both regret and confusion, only ever opening up about the truth to his long-time riding partner (Morgan Freeman). The word of mouth that exaggerates various tales (such as Levine's disfigurement being described as even more vicious than it actually is) is embodied in the form of a writer (Saul Rubinek) who follows Harris around and documents his exploits, embellishing them as necessary to make for best-selling tales of adventure and excitement. When Hackman is ready to set the record straight not just about Harris's experiences but also provides an engaging insight into the real psychology of the Wild West, he proves a more fascinating subject for Rubinek's work than Harris. It's an easy enough metaphor for how the easy thrills of older and morally unambiguous Western fiction can easily be superseded by the less overtly exciting but fundamentally more interesting tales that are rooted in realism, though Rubinek's fascination with capturing the truth of the matter is still ultimately seen as a nuisance.

As rich in thematic content as it may be, Unforgiven is still an extremely solid film in just about every regard. On the acting front, things are solid, especially in the case of the four old professionals that headline the film. Eastwood gets to take his usual squinting badass persona and feed it some much-needed vulnerability that really adds depth to later events. He gets in some appropriately sardonic camaraderie with Freeman, who provides something of an intermediary between the embittered Eastwood and the petulant Woolvert. Hackman understandably won an Oscar for his work as the sheriff whose avuncular attitude and dedication to maintaining law and order by any means necessary ultimately make him into a greater villain than any face-cutting ne'er-do-well; he carrying scenes well whether through humourous interplay with others, letting his inner menace shine through, or a combination of both those factors. Harris plays a smaller role than expected, though his debonair British charm and the subsequent derailment thereof make for entertaining scenes. Fisher and Levine exist as more than just plot catalysts, which Woolvert does pretty well playing a character who could have very easily been too annoying but here provides the right air of arrogant bluster and childish insecurity.

The film's visual approach lacks ostentatious style by design, with Eastwood's workmanlike sense of competence proving solid without drawing too much attention to itself. If anything, what really drew my attention this time around was the approach to sound. Though there's a lilting acoustic guitar theme (composed by Eastwood himself) that plays repeatedly throughout the film and also a fair few instances of traditional orchestral score underpinning dramatic moments, these pieces aren't quite as effective as the deployment of background noise. Given how prone the film is to having stormy sequences, it's impressive how much the rumbling thunder is used to emphasise certain beats within scenes without coming across as overdone. In Unforgiven, a well-timed thunderclap does more than any bombastic orchestra could hope to achieve. That is one of many reasons why the film manages to impress time and time again despite seeming to try too hard to do so; it's as effortless a masterpiece as you're likely to find.