The Western is back. With a vengeance. Saddle up or get out of the way.
“Unforgiven” (citywide) is not just any Western either. Simultaneously heroic and nihilistic, reeking of myth but modern as they come, it is a Western for those who know and cherish the form, a film that resonates with the sprit of films past while staking out a territory quite its own.
Produced, directed by and starring Clint Eastwood, “Unforgiven” is hard to imagine in anyone else’s hands. No other active player has made as many Westerns, no one else has the connection with and feeling for the genre that only working in it for more than 30 years can provide. And starting as far back as Sergio Leone’s “A Fistful of Dollars,” Eastwood has delighted in bending boundaries, in pushing the Western to areas outside the accepted canon.
So it’s not surprising that the producer-director in Eastwood recognized the strengths of David Webb Peoples’ exceptional screenplay, the unexpected turns its plot takes, the power of its idiosyncratic characters, the adroit way it mixes modern and traditional elements. More than that, Eastwood the actor was shrewd enough to hold onto the script for more than a decade until, just past his 60th birthday, he felt he had aged enough to do the role properly.
For “Unforgiven,” the story of a reformed killer who re-confronts his past, is very definitely an old-guy Western, as elegiac in its own way as such classics as “The Wild Bunch” and “Ride the High Country.” As “True Grit” was for John Wayne, this is also something of a last hurrah for Eastwood’s “man-with-no-name” persona, but because Eastwood is who he is, it is a dark and ominous goodby, brooding and stormy.
“Unforgiven” is also, and this is perhaps its most unexpected aspect, a neat piece of revisionism, a violent film that is determined to demythologize killing. Considerable emphasis is placed on how hard it is to kill even one man, on the destructive interior price that must be paid for each and every act of mayhem. If there are thrills to be had here, none of them come at all cheaply.
Both the time and setting of “Unforgiven"--1880 in Big Whiskey, Wyo.--emphasize this sense of mortality. The frontier West is coming to an end, both physically and spiritually, but that close is leaving considerable frustration in its wake. In the forbidding high country, a flat empty locale under cold blue skies, the West is very much an angry, hostile place, rife with fury and lawlessness.
In Big Whiskey itself, however, the law is a considerable presence. He is the town sheriff, Little Bill (Gene Hackman) by name, and in the film’s opening moments he is called in to adjudicate a dispute at the local whorehouse. A cowboy from a nearby ranch has viciously cut up the face of one of the prostitutes. When the house’s owner complains “no one is going to pay good money for a cut-up whore,” Little Bill decrees that the cowboy and a friend who accompanied him must pay the owner six horses as compensation.
This does not sit well with Strawberry Alice (Frances Fisher), the most outspoken of the prostitutes, who has a harsher, less mercantile punishment in mind. “Just because we let the smelly fools ride us like horses,” she says angrily, giving the film a fascinating neo-feminist subtext, “doesn’t mean we let them brand us like horses.” When Little Bill doesn’t agree, Alice masterminds a sub rosa scheme to offer $1,000 cash for the death of the two cowboys, no questions asked.
None of this would normally come to the attention of William Munny (Eastwood), a destitute Kansas farmer who, having recently buried his wife, divides his time between raising their two small children and awkwardly rooting around with his recalcitrant hogs.
Munny, however, is not your ordinary farmer. Before he met his wife and went on the wagon 11 years earlier, he was a serious alcoholic and “a meaner-than-hell, cold-blooded killer” who was legendary for the heedless death he left in his path. Or so says the self-styled Schofield Kid (Canadian actor Jaimz Woolvett), a classically callow young blowhard who has heard of Munny’s reputation and rides into his yard offering him half the reward if he’ll join up for the hunt.
With a face looking so worn and lined it seems to have fallen off Mount Rushmore, Munny is clearly not eager for his old life. “I’m just a fella now,” he tells the Kid with what sounds like conviction. “I ain’t no different than anyone else.”
But his impoverished condition is a goad, and Munny ends up enlisting his neighbor and ex-partner Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman) to join in the quest. As Munny and Logan head off for Big Whiskey, they face some troubling questions. Are they the same men, can they still kill the same way, and, more crucial, if they manage that one step back down the road to perdition, will they then be able to turn around and return to their quiet lives?
It is one of the pleasures of David Peoples’ script, along with period dialogue that mixes menace with a sly and earthy sense of humor, that these kinds of questions come up at all. Peoples, whose resume includes a shared credit on “Blade Runner” and work on the exceptional documentary “The Day After Trinity,” is intent on unromanticizing the West, on portraying shootouts and gunplay, normally the stuff of heroic tales, as drunken, thuggish violence of the most craven sort.
And though he has no interest in creating out-and-out heroes, Peoples has come up with a collection of vivid, eccentric characters, from brief cameos like a one-armed, three-gun deputy to major roles like dime novel scribe W.W. Beauchamp (Saul Rubinek) and English Bob, a fancy-pants killer given a nice twist by Richard Harris, who never quite behave exactly as you’d expect them to.
Most memorable of all, however, is Little Bill, Big Whiskey’s no-nonsense sheriff who is determined to ban firearms from his town no matter what the cost. Ruthless to the point of sadism, but possessed of both a sense of justice and a sense of humor, a homebody with a weakness but not necessarily an aptitude for carpentry, Little Bill makes up the rules as he goes along. And in playing him, Gene Hackman gives one of his most powerful and least mannered performances, displaying an implacable strength and controlled passion that form the essential counterbalance to Eastwood’s own considerable force.
For “Unforgiven” (rated R for language, violence and a scene of sensuality) is first, last and always very much an Eastwood film. As an actor he is exactly right in a role that is as comfortable on him as an old hat; as a producer he has had the sense and nerve to cast this film for ability, not box office; and, most important, as a director he has infused it all with his sure, laconic, emotionally involving style. Eastwood has dedicated this film to the two directors who were most influential in his own career, Sergio Leone and Don Siegel, and perhaps the best thing that can finally be said about “Unforgiven” is that these two masters would doubtless both be flattered and approve.
Clint Eastwood: William Munny
Gene Hackman: Little Bill
Morgan Freeman: Ned Logan
Richard Harris: English Bob
Jaimz Woolvett: Schofield Kid
Saul Rubinek: W.W. Beauchamp
Frances Fisher: Strawberry Alice
A Malpaso production, released by Warner Bros. Director Clint Eastwood. Producer Clint Eastwood. Executive producer David Valdes. Screenplay David Webb Peoples. Cinematographer Jack N. Green. Editor Joel Cox. Music Lennie Niehaus. Production design Henry Bumstead. Art director Rick Roberts, Adrian Gorton. Set decorator Janice Blackie-Goodine. Running time: 2 hours, 11 minutes.
MPAA-rated R (language, violence, a scene of sensuality).