In the category of A Best Picture Winner, Scott has chosen Unforgiven (1992), directed by Clint Eastwood, written by David Webb Peoples, and starring Eastwood, Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman, and Richard Harris
There are so many great movies that have won Best Picture (duh) that it was really hard to pick one specifically that I wanted to watch. While I have seen most of the winners from the late-2000’s on (that’s when I really started getting in to film), I wanted to explore a movie that I had some familiarity with, but hadn’t seen. I considered Shakespeare in Love, American Beauty, Dances with Wolves, and Amadeus, before settling in on Unforgiven. Why Unforgiven you may ask? Well, I was interested in the 65th Best Picture winner because I perceive the slate of films it competed against to be fairly weak in retrospect, so I was curious how it held up. Also, I just wanted to watch a Western; it’s been awhile since I have seen a Western. Last year’s The Magnificent Seven remake didn’t quite get me interested enough to go see it, but the seed was planted at least, and now I reap the fruits of that seed.
Anyways, Unforgiven: Clint Eastwood’s 1992 led Western is a challenging film at times and ultimately a rewarding one. Firstly let’s discuss his craft; Eastwood has a director now has proven himself with a varied directorial backlog, and when Unforgiven came out he had nearly two decades of directing experience under his belt. It shows here, as the visuals, the storytelling, and the editing are all top notch. You are never left wanting for more information, but you also never feel like you are being spoon-fed critical pieces of the story. The characters are full-bodied and nuanced, with rich backstories that show naturally why characters behave certain ways. It’s all quite satisfying. The music is mood-setting and fits the film very well, including the main theme written by Eastwood himself. The movie makes it clear that Eastwood is a master of the Western genre, and it’s put to excellent use.
Unforgiven’s main success is that it subverts the traditional Western tropes to deliver a satisfying deconstruction of the seminal genre. When you think of the traditional Western movie, you think of the heroic cowboy with scruples, versus the dirty outlaw who will do anything to get away, with a cast of characters around them that include the sheriff, the loyal partner, the damsel, and more. Unforgiven takes this cast of standard characters and turns them on their head. Eastwood takes the hero role as William Muney, but is turned into an antihero, a reformed criminal who returns to crime for a big payday for his family. He is clearly haunted by his past, and begrudges the fact that he is back on that same path, but continues anyways. Richard Harris plays the closest thing to the traditional outlaw with his English Bob character, but he is caught quickly and dispatched before he can do much more than make noise. This makes our primary antagonist Gene Hackman’s sheriff, Little Bill. His character is quite interesting and contrarian; he runs a tight ship in the city of Big Whiskey, with ordinances outlawing guns in the city, and deputies monitoring the townsfolk. This implied tough demeanor is at odds with his personal life, where he is quite unsuccessfully trying to build his home. He stubbornly won’t call a real carpenter, and as such lives amongst the leaks in his roof. He’s stubborn and full of bravado. Morgan Freeman plays Muney’s loyal partner Ned, but even he subverts his role; his cowardice/conscience is on display as he won’t take the key shot to kill a man, and then retreats back to his home before the job is done.
This cast of characters interweaves to create a story that examines masculinity, violence, and morality. Whereas old spaghetti Westerns are full of bravado and champion the heroes for their success in combat, Unforgiven does not glorify violence. In fact, the character deaths in this movie are undignified, and show the truth of ending life; it takes a hard man to make that shot that kills someone, and there is no glory in an outlaw’s death. Sheriff Bill spends much of the movie spinning tales of his heroics to the biographer in town, while he himself lets violent criminals off the hook with little punishment, and fails when it matters most. The ending of the movie is quite abrupt; once Bill Muney gets his man, there is no glory in victory, just his slow ride home, into the sunset.
I wouldn’t say that the movie is flawless; the pacing in particular was an issue for me in the first half of the film, as the slow buildup of the characters leads to a hard-hitting second half. The movie is pretty stunning all around in its visuals, and it uses darkness and lighting well as a tool for the storytelling, but at times I actually just had a hard time seeing what was happening. Intentional or not, it was a bit annoying. But overall the whole package of this movie was very good. Genre films traditionally don’t do too well in award season, but Unforgiven does a good enough job succeeding as a drama on its own right, while addressing and honoring the genre it is born into. I don’t think pure subversion is the path to successful genre films, but for a master of Western filmmaking like Clint Eastwood, it works very well here.
Want to keep up with the rest of our scavenger hunt? Check out the rest of our May Movie Challenge here.