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Unforgiven (1992)


  • Review: **** (out of ****)
  • Starring: Clint Eastwood, Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman, Richard Harris, Jaimz Woolvett, Saul Rubinek, Frances Fisher, Anna Thomson
  • Director: Clint Eastwood
  • Screenplay: David Webb Peoples
  • Length: 131 min.
  • MPAA Rating: R

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not a fan of the western genre. Perhaps it was from being forced to watch John Wayne movies as a kid? My dislike of the genre is almost as deep as my hate of dumb comedies. Sitting down to Unforgiven, admittedly the last Best Picture winner I had ever seen, I was surprised to find that the western genre could actually be entertaining.

Clint Eastwood directs and stars in this film about a retired gunslinger whose poverty forces him to take a contract to kill two prostitute-damaging cowboys. As Bill Munny, Eastwood fits well. The character is rough, grizzled and world weary. Having spent the last few years mourning the passing of his wife, the only woman who didn’t hate him for his past, he is finally forced into the path of monetary gain. A young drifter named The Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett) shows up at his stead one day wanting professional help to claim a reward. Reluctantly, he agrees to do so with memories of his past drunkenness acting as discouraging factors.

Refusing to go anywhere without his old partner Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman), the three of them set off for a little Utah town where former gunslinger-turned-sheriff Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman) has taken residence.

Unlike many action westerns of the past, Unforgiven puts the shooting on the back burner in favor of a compelling story. Many of the performances in the film are top notch, including Hackman, Eastwood and Frances Fisher, who plays prostitute matron Strawberry Alice. Each of them evokes aspects of the old west stereotypes while adding depth.

Against such heavy weights, Woolvett seems out of place. Though his character is intended to be wet behind the ears, Woolvett doesn’t seem to be able to shine through where other younger actors might. However, casting an unknown in the role was exactly what was needed as anyone else would have bread too much familiarity for the character.

Also performing below expectations was Freeman. Freeman has the tendency to play every role the same way. Though there’s a fatherly quality to everything he does, his performance here is nothing short of disinteresting. He ends up as the moral compass of the film, though by that point, we’re already so engrossed by Eastwood’s character that it seems anticlimactic.

The typical themes of westerns are present: revenge, triumph over extreme odds and family respect. Unforgiven doesn’t take the latter in the same direction as many often do. Though most western heroes will seek revenge for the killing of their family or loved ones, the revenge here is against a cowboy who decides to cut up his whore because she snickered at his shortcomings. We are forced to feel sympathy for his friend who, while holding her down so the other could cut her, attempts to make piece by offering the scarred woman a horse. We hope to see more of this exchange and perhaps find a bit of redemption for someone who so obviously feels remorse, but that hope is dashed in one, interesting gunfight.

Unforgiven isn’t the popular style of the genre that used to be a staple of Hollywood. It is a bit too serious and thought provoking for the crowd that would like John Wayne movies. Nevertheless, it is an involving piece of entertainment with a few, albeit minor, problems.