The Best Picture Project – Unforgiven (1991)

Directed by Clint Eastwood

Written by David Webb Peoples

Starring Clint Eastwood, Morgan Freeman, Gene Hackman, Richard Harris, Saul Rubinek and Frances Fisher

Clint Eastwood’s career behind the camera had always been something of a grab bag prior to Unforgiven in that, when you stuck your hand in, you never quite knew what you were gonna get.  Sometimes, you’d put your hand in and pull out High Plains Drifter or The Outlaw Josey Wales – both of which could make for a very good movie-night.  Other times you’d stick your hand in and get bit by crud like Sudden Impact or The Rookie.

Clearly, though, as he aged Eastwood was turning his attentions from what I’ll call filler-films-between-the-great-ones and onto more somber, thoughtful, complex stories for nearly every film.  In other words, he matured as a director and began to show his backside to the crud and turned instead towards films with depth, such as Bird and White Hunter Black Heart.

As good as his earlier work was, though, it wasn’t until Unforgiven Eastwood really hit his stride.  Yes, he made some clunkers after that – Space Cowboys, I’m looking right at you – but often as not the failures couldn’t be dismissed as outright failures and were grudgingly accepted by many to have at least been interesting.  And the successes, artistically, if not commercially, hit new heights.  Obviously, there was Unforgiven, but also we were treated to A Perfect World, with it’s very fine performance by Kevin Costner, The Bridges of Madison County and pretty much his whole oeuvre since the turn of the century.

Still, despite what would come after, it wasn’t until Unforgiven that the sixty-year-old Eastwood finally received some awards recognition and had his coming out party.  And what a party to come out at.

Originally called The Cut Whore Killings, Unforgiven at first appears to be a simple revenge story.  A group of whores hire some gunmen to go kill the two men that cut up one of their own.  But while the story appears simple, it’s far from it.  After all, the bad guys who did the cutting, aren’t really all that bad – in fact, one of them is quite innocent and remorseful and desirous of atonement – and the good guys who come to do the killing, aren’t as righteous as their cause would have them be.  Indeed, they may really be badder men than the actual bad guys in the film.  In the end, it’s hard to know if justice was really done.

Eastwood apparently came across the script in the mid-70s and seeing a dandy of a role for himself in the lead he snapped the script up, but rather than make it immediately he preferred to sit on it and wait until he’d aged into the role.  And really, watching the film, it’s not difficult to see why he responded to it and hoarded it.  There is the ambiguity of the bad guys and the good guys, common elements in the spaghetti westerns that made him famous.  Indeed, it’s easy to imagine what Sergio Leone would have done with the script, should he had it.  Yes, it would’ve been brighter, sweatier and ladled liberally with an Ennio Morricone score, but the thrust of the film would have seemed the same.

But at the same time, the film has a real complexity to it.  In the old westerns, the violence had a definite heroic and sexy quality about it that was meant to sell tickets.  Here, there was no gloss.  Nobody died quickly or easily and the tough questions that were asked received no easy answers.  In a way, the films failure to glorify violence almost makes it the anti-spaghetti western

Plus, there’s the fact that the film is much like Eastwood, in that it’s politically a pied piper, flitting regularly from liberal to conservative ideas.  On the one hand, Eastwood endorsed Nixon, voted for Eisenhower and appeared at the latest Republican National Convention.  On the other hand, he’s supported liberal policiticians, is pro-choice and apparently support’s same-sex marriage.

The film is no different.  For instance, while the lawmen are very interested in removing the guns from the streets of their quiet little town, a very liberal idea, they gladly take part in torture and what amounts to public executions, a very conservative idea.  On the one hand, Little Bill Dagget rails against loafers, a common conservative bell to ring, but on the other can be seen as light on crime, which is something liberals are consistently accused of.

In other words, the movie is complex and it is likely the complexity that finally got Eastwood Academy recognition.

This is not to say the film is not without it’s flaws.  Sadly, there is a bit of dragginess that settles into the middle-section of the film, and the women are generally shrill in their performances.  On the whole, though, the visuals and the performances by the leads are enough to carry it through.

Still, I couldn’t help but do some re-casting of the picture in my head, specifically for the role of the Kid.  While the actor who portrayed him, Jaimz Woolvett, was quite good, I couldn’t help but wonder what River Phoenix would have done with the role.  Alas, it wasn’t to be.

For other entries in the Best Picture Project, please go here.

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