“Unforgiven” is a classic Western for the ages. In his 10th excursion into the genre that made him a star more than 25 years ago, Clint Eastwood has crafted a tense, hard-edged, superbly dramatic yarn that is also an exceedingly intelligent meditation on the West, its myths and its heroes. With its grizzled cast of outstanding actors playing outlaws who have survived their primes, this is unapologetically a mature, contemplative film, with all that implies for B.O. prospects. But buffs, longtime Eastwood fans and connoisseurs of the form should love it, resulting in good word-of-mouth and sustained business through Labor Day and possibly beyond.
Eastwood has dedicated the film “to Sergio and Don,” references to his most important mentors, Sergio Leone and Don Siegel, and it is easy to see why. Not only is the salute a tip of the hat to the directors who presumably taught him the most, but it signals his intention to reflect upon the sort of terse, tough, hard-bitten characters he became famous for in their pictures, as he plays a man described as being “as cold as the snow.”
From one angle, Eastwood’s Bill Munny can be seen as a hypothetical portrait of the Man With No Name in his sunset years. A widower with two young kids whose late wife “cured me of drink and wickedness,” Munny has nothing to show for wayward youth except a decrepit pig farm.
But when a hotshot by the name of the “Schofield Kid” (Jaimz Woolvett) turns up offering to split a $1,000 reward being offered for the hides of two men who grue- somely sliced up a prostitute, Munny reluctantly straps on his holster for the first time in more than a decade in order to earn the much-needed loot.
To the Kid’s annoyance, Munny insists upon bringing along his former partner-in-crime Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman), who is living peaceably on a farm.
Beating this group to their destination of Big Whiskey is railroad gunman English Bob (Richard Harris), an arrogant mythomaniac and rabid monarchist traveling with a biographer (Saul Rubinek) who memorializes his bloody accomplishments in dime novels.
Outlaws and bounty hunters around Big Whiskey face a problem by the name of Sheriff Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman), a brutal former badman who allows no one to carry firearms in town.
As storm clouds gather, the bounty-hunting trio makes its way toward town, with Munny continually rejecting his past even as he rides to his destiny with it. Resolution to the leisurely but tightly wound drama comes not in an expected, standard showdown, but much more complexly, in a series of separate confrontations that are alternately tragic and touching. Final shots, which have the survivor of the climactic bloodbath riding off, not into the sunset, but into a nocturnal downpour, constitute a hauntingly poetic variation on the usual Western fadeout.
Eastwood’s telling of this grim, compelling tale is at least as impressive as in his best prior outings as a director — “The Outlaw Josey Wales,””Bird” and “White Hunter, Black Heart.”
But the acting ensemble is stronger than in any of Eastwood’s previous pix, and David Webb Peoples’ beautifully crafted, resonant screenplay has inspired the filmmaker to develop fully several themes that have run throughout his work, which is what finally puts “Unforgiven” on such a high level in its genre.
The dilemma of the outlaw whose infamous past makes it hard for him to put down his guns has cropped up in many films, notably “The Gunfighter,” but Eastwood and Peoples’ approach is bracingly anti-mythic and anti-heroic, as well as disarmingly humorous.
As he comes ever closer to his rendezvous with Sheriff Daggett and his former self, he becomes increasingly physically ill until he faces up to what he has to do. Along the way, Munny teaches the Kid a few things about what it means to shoot someone. After the countless people Eastwood characters have gunned down over the years, the pain and difficulty invested in each killing here lends them an extraordinary and profound weight.
Recurring Eastwood themes involving humiliation and physical pain are present, and a strong feminist streak runs through the center of the story, as it is a close-knit group of hookers who defy Sheriff Daggett in the first place and put up the reward money for their mutilated co-worker.
For once, Eastwood has surrounded himself with an ensemble cast of top-drawer actors, with terrific results. Playing a stubbly, worn-out, has-been outlaw who can barely mount his horse at first, Eastwood, unafraid to show his age, is outstanding in his best clipped, understated manner. Hackman deliciously realizes the two sides of the sheriff’s quicksilver personality, the folksy raconteur and the vicious sadist.
Freeman, whose race is never remarked upon by the other characters even though the Kid clearly resents him, poignantly portrays a man whose loyalty to his old partner wars with his common sense, and Harris has a high old time looking mean and menacing and ranting about the uncivilized nature of democracy. Other performances are solid down the line.
Technically, film is superior. Vet production designer Henry Bumstead has designed a distinctive old Western town, and lenser Jack N. Green’s widescreen images have a natural, unforced beauty that imaginatively make use of the mostly flat expanses of the Alberta locations. Lennie Niehaus’ lovely score is mournful and melodious.
The richness of the material fully merits the extended, expert treatment accorded it, and anyone with a taste for Western films and the myths born on the frontier will have a feast with “Unforgiven.”