Clint Eastwood’s deservedly Oscar-winning western UNFORGIVEN is a masterpiece – a harrowing journey of violence and its consequences.
“I’m just a fella now. I’m no different from anyone else” says Will Munny – a grizzled Clint Eastwood in possibly the finest performance of his incredible career – at the start of his masterpiece of a western UNFORGIVEN. He’s a widower, looking after his two young children on their small farm but not all that long ago, as we come to learn, he was one of the most ruthless killers it would be your definite misfortune to meet. Persuaded into taking on a job of bringing a couple of errant cowboys to justice, after a young prostitute is beaten and scarred, he’s doing it for the money, for his kids future.
But teaming up with ‘The Schofield Kid’, a young and naive boy (a wonderfully raw performance from the hitherto unknown Jaimz Woolvert) and his lifelong friend Ned Logan (the usual top-notch portrayal from Morgan Freeman), Munny soon realises that this ‘one last job’ won’t be as easy as he thought.
The cowboys are based in the town of Big Whiskey, ruled over by the terrifying Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman in his magnificent Oscar-winning performance) and as news of the madam’s reward has got out, others have decided to show up to claim it – principal among them English Bob, an effete, tailored gunfighter, played with majestic assurance by Richard Harris.
But when Daggett teaches Bob a lesson in poaching on somebody else’s turf that he won’t forget in a hurry, you just know how hopelessly unprepared Munny and his friends are for what they’ll meet when they arrive and so the scene is set for a showdown, though when it comes, it’s quite unlike anything you could have imagined.
For a film that has such a violent centre, what UNFORGIVEN leaves you with (and stuns you on each repeat viewing) is the senselessness of violence. The Schofield Kid brags when we first meet him, how many men he’s shot – which is, of course, a lie because he hasn’t killed anyone – and then when he finally does shoot a man dead, he realises how reprehensible the act is “It don’t seem real” he says.
“It’s a hell of a thing, killing a man.” says Munny, “Take away all he’s got and all he’s ever gonna have.”
David Webb Peoples’ tautly written script allows us to see the Old West as very much a wild and lawless place, not the romantic vision that has sometimes been shown and more particularly, how violence impacts on every one of the characters but none more so that the initially naive biographer W. W. Beauchamp (another sharp portrayal from the excellent Saul Rubinek), who’s documenting Bob’s history as a fearsome gunfighter. He witnesses killing at close quarters, having only previously heard tales of shoot-outs described as events of daring-do, which fail to capture the very real pain and suffering which violence can bring.
All this is beautifully lit and shot by Jack N. Green and in Eastwood’s measured direction, an increasingly dark journey into what one man is capable of is at once chilling and thrilling in equal measure. The way the story unfolds slowly at first, as we can’t quite believe Munny was ever the brutal killer we’ve heard about but then it leads inexorably to that final showdown, making the film at the time of its release, possibly the high point of Eastwood’s illustrious career.
UNFORGIVEN is rightly heralded as one of the great westerns and won four Oscars at the 1993 Academy Awards – for Eastwood’s direction, Joel Cox’s editing, Hackman’s supporting performance and ‘Best Picture’ – every one of them more than deserved. It’s a shame that Eastwood’s own searing performance was not honoured but the film itself is a testimony to his genius as a film-maker, distilled so eloquently into that great final shot – a fitting last hurrah to so many of his screen cowboys, men who may briefly live a notorious and dangerous life and then perhaps, simply disappear.