The Western is a unique kind of film. I don’t think that any other genre follows such rules and patterns, except maybe film noir. I’m not that big a Western fan, but I’ve enjoyed some of them. My favorite is probably “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly”, an exhilarating buddy comedy/war epic/Western from Sergio Leone. It stars Clint Eastwood, our last great cowboy. Hence, who’d be more qualified to deconstruct the genre? Especially since Eastwood had already proven himself as a gifted director with films like “The Outlaw Josey Wales” and “Pale Rider”. The Oscar-winning “Unforgiven” is a darker, more thoughtful Western, as well as an unglamorized portrayal of gunplay.
Eastwood stars as William Munny, a melancholy widower who lives on an isolated farm with his children. Munny used to be a cruel, constantly drunk assassin, but his late wife managed to make him a wiser, calmer man. 11 years after he last killed, an arrogant young cowboy comes to him to make him an offer: help him hunt down a couple of jerks who sliced up a whore. The reward: a thousand dollars. After thinking it over, down in the mud with his pigs, Munny finally decides to go for it. One last time, and then he’ll be financially set. He’s not the badass he used to be, he’s not gonna go back to that life. So Munny catches up with the kid, not before picking up his old partner Ned Logan. What this crew doesn’t expect is that they’ll have to confront Little Bill Daggett, the brutal sheriff of Big Whiskey.
So far, you’d think that this is just like any other Western. The difference is in the writing and in the characters, which are much more complex than usual. Munny could likely have been a typical Eastwood character when he was young, but he’s now older and less confident. He questions his actions and regrets his past. It’s very interesting to watch Eastwood’s performance, as he goes from the guy who couldn’t fail from the Leone pictures to a flawed man. His partner is played by the always effective Morgan Freeman, and he’s in the same lines as Eastwood’s character, except that he’s prefer to forget about his past. Jaimz Woolvet plays the Schofield kid, who can be seen as a Western fan that would be thrown into one. He wants to be tough and all, but he realizes that killing another man isn’t a fun thing to do, au contraire.
An even rarer thing in this kind of movie is that even the bad guy ain’t one-dimensioned. Gene Hackman masterfully plays Little Bill, a man with questionable methods but whose motivations are understandable. I wouldn’t call him a good fella, but when he’s working on his house, you see that he’s just a regular Joe. To prepare us to what he’ll make of Munny and his guys, the film first brings another gunman into town, English Bob. The lesson he’s given by Hackman shows how excessive he can be. I enjoy very much Eastwood’s direction. He doesn’t bother about making his films commercial. His films are often slower than mainstream fare, but that’s because Eastwood likes to spend time with his characters. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t exciting scenes in the film – the finale, for one, is simply breathtaking. Altogether, “Unforgiven” is a brilliant Western, unlike any you’ve ever seen.