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There is a stateliness and repose, a stillness even, in the shots of the land in Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven that persuasively evoke the pervasive mood of the film -- melancholy -- and help underscore its predominant theme: death. The majestic vistas of Alberta, Canada, have served Eastwood's generous, retrospective glance at the western genre as comfortably as a time-worn saddle. For instead of revisiting the Monument Valley horizons of the vast majority of John Ford's films, here we're almost reminded of Robert Altman's McCabe and Mrs. Miller for the similarly ruminative depiction of man's mortality set against the power of timeless creation. Far more than his limited acting skills would suggest, Eastwood has matured as a director: The painterly still-life depictions of the mountains, meadows, wheat fields, and brooks that surround and cover the fictional town of Big Whiskey like a shroud evocatively point to man's vulnerability before nature. It is a dark and thoroughly existential cowboy story. For that, some will doubtless deem it too soporific and bleak.
Aided by a screenplay written some twelve years ago by David Webb Peoples, Eastwood portrays nature as a multifarious but fundamentally singular force, while the diminutive men and women who play their parts on the field of human conflict are depicted either as spiritually broken or morally fraudulent. There is an abundance of victims, but not a single hero, in this film. Human fallibility is stressed at the expense of virtue. Violence begets violence with often horrifyingly blank motivation. Thus, I've heard some folks tag Unforgiven "a cynical Nineties version" or "a Yuppie western," sympathies that speak volumes about our own audiences but add little to a discussion of a neglected filmic tradition or an assessment of its historical prerogatives. It also shows how many in the movie-going mass would gladly forgo Unforgiven's moral gray areas for a steady diet of like-it-is John Wayne spectaculars.
Among its boons, Unforgiven is rich in irony. Convincingly aged and diminished, Clint Eastwood plays Will Munny, a former gunslinger and cold-blooded murderer in his dotage. Will is a widower reformed from booze and killing who toils on a pig farm with his two children (falling in porcine excrement more than once). One day, a wanna-be young gun (Jaimz Woolvett) arrives at the farm to ask for his help in killing two men accused of maiming a prostitute. A $1000 ransom has been set from the whores' collected savings, attracting every killer in the region. Will at first demurs, but then changes his mind. The proposed assassinations, variously referred to throughout the course of the film, constitute the compelling moral argument. The attempt to revisit the past comes back to haunt Will Munny.
Munny searches out his former partner (Morgan Freeman), like himself a retired firebrand turned farmer, and the two older men seek out the kid and make tracks for Big Whiskey. Meanwhile, the town sheriff (Gene Hackman), a staunch enforcer of the law (which includes a no-firearm policy upon entering Big Whiskey), discovers that every murderer in the West is heading toward his town. In one of the more amusing -- and brutal -- sequences in the film, English Bob (Richard Harris, in a brilliant cameo), a smooth-talking assassin, comes into town pleading the cause of the British monarchy to any and all who will listen, but is nabbed by the sheriff and his deputies, beaten up on Main Street, and made an example of to warn other intrusive gunmen. English Bob has brought his own biographer (Saul Rubinek), hard at work on a series entitled "The Duke of Death." While nursing his wounds in jail, Bob listens as the sheriff repeatedly calls him "The Duck of Death," while setting the historical record straight to the wide-eyed chronicler.
But the comedy ends there. In Unforgiven men sitting round a campfire reminisce about a man whose teeth went out the back of his head from a gunshot. They're killers, but they're death-obsessed, too, and the ghosts are often more vivid than the living. (Even Munny's dead wife is a looming presence.) This recalls Eastwood's last western, made in 1985, Pale Rider, a tribute to George Stevens's Shane, where the lone character of the title is alleged to be dead. Lit in Rembrandtian browns and blacks, the cinematography emphasizes the morbidly intractable course of events. In Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns of the Sixties, Eastwood was a nameless, and elusively romantic, figure. As a 62-year-old horseman, there are intimations of desperation in Clint's carriage these days. American Film once asked Leone what he saw in Eastwood, and this was his answer: "When Michelangelo was asked what he had seen in the one particular block of marble which he chose among hundreds of others, he replied that he saw Moses. I would offer the same answer to your question, only backwards. What I saw in [Eastwood], simply, was a block of marble." As star turns go, his performance in Unforgiven is fittingly marmoreal, and yes, of its kind, magnificent. (Shades of Wayne's cancer-consumed outlaw in his final western, The Shootist.)
Conversely, Gene Hackman has always been a dependably malleable actor, but never more so than here, playing a man whose ramrod straightness at first inspires admiration, then mirth (as he spoofs English Bob), and finally, as his campaign against wanton violence in Big Whiskey turns sadistic, repulsion. It's one of his richest roles because the complexities of moral ambiguity permit him to bask in a wide palette of realistic effects. In a sense, the sheriff is the protagonist of the film because of his perfidious extremism; what propels the story to its culmination -- when Will Munny rekindles his past and rides into town, provokes and then shoots his way out of a bloodbath -- isn't the ransomed murders but the sheriff's torture of an innocent man.
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