April 16, 2014

Unforgiven (1992)
Grade: 90/100

Director: Clint Eastwood
Stars: Clint Eastwood, Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman

What it's about. Set in the Old West, circa-1881. Aging widower Munny (Clint Eastwood) is a former legendary gunslinger, but now he is a pig farmer saddled with two young 'uns.

One day, immature would-be outlaw Jaimz Woolvett rides up with an offer. He wants Munny to become his partner in a hit of two cowboys to collect a $1,000 bounty in the distant town of Big Whiskey, Wyoming. One of the cowboys sliced up the face of a prostitute (Anna Levine) in a fit of rage. The bounty is put up by the other ladies in the cathouse, led by Frances Fisher.

Munny, whose farm is failing, soon decides to take Woolvett up on his offer, but only if accompanied by his best friend, Morgan Freeman. They travel to Big Whiskey, but another gunman, braggart English Bob (Richard Harris) gets there first. Bob is accompanied by dime store novelist Saul Rubinek.

Big Whiskey marshal Little Bill (Gene Hackman) knows about the bounty and is determined to stop any killers who have come to collect. Little Bill humiliates and beats up English Bob, then sends him packing. However, Rubinek stays in Big Whiskey, now kissing up to Little Bill. The story inevitably concludes with a confrontation between Munny and Little Bill.

How others will see it. Here is a movie that was welcomed from the beginning, and remains highly regarded to this day. It grossed multiples of its surprisingly low budget of 15M, and ended up winning four Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor (Hackman). It was also nominated for Best Actor (Eastwood) and Best Original Screenplay (David Webb Peoples).

At imdb.com, the film has more than 200K user votes and an extremely high user rating of 8.3, enough to place the film well within the website's Top 250. However, there is a modest gender gap, 8.4 from men versus 7.9 from women. Women over 45 grade it 7.3. Apparently, a small minority of female viewers are repulsed by the violence, or perhaps by Munny's abandonment of his two preteenaged children.

How I felt about it. I have seen this movie several times now. It remains a great movie, but it has become easier to poke a few holes in it. In particular, I am amazed that the three killers, none of whom have seen the two cowboys before, can identify them so readily, especially at a distance. I remember the two crude crayon drawings, but they appear insufficient to the task.

I also don't understand why the companion is considered equally to blame as the cowboy who cut up the prostitute. The companion was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, and had no intention of violence.

It is also amazing that none of the admittedly amateurish deputies at the bar takes a shot at Munny between the deaths of Skinny and Little Bill, especially after Munny's shotgun misfires.

While I can believe that Little Bill is able to identify English Bob on sight, it is much more difficult to believe that Little Bill was present as an uninvolved eyewitness when English Bob and Two-Gun Corcoran had their legendary gunfight.

One also wonders why Munny was allowed to eke out an existence as a homesteader after he had murdered so many, including women and children. Or why Little Bill doesn't run the cathouse women out of town, to prevent anyone from collecting the bounty.

All of this shows that regardless of a film's quality, it is still possible to criticize it mercilessly. And, it hardly matters much. The greatness of the film is palpable. The script, the casting, the acting, the cinematography, the costumes and art direction, are all unassailable. It is only the plot that shows obvious imperfections.

David Webb Peoples receives sole credit for the screenplay. Naturally, one wonders what else he has done. Blade Runner (1982), is a famous and influential film, but it is not particularly good. Twelve Monkeys (1995) is, but we give most of the credit to Terry Gilliam. Other films based on Peoples scripts are of marginal interest. Leviathan is a lesser version of Alien, and Ladyhawke is a watchable period curiosity known for its pre-Ferris Beuller appearance of Matthew Broderick.

It appears, then, that the quality of Unforgiven is due to director Eastwood. The old hand certainly knows how to put a film together. If he is better at westerns, than, for example, war movies, it is likely because his screen persona works best in that genre, and he is well acquainted with the mythology of the Old West.

The Best Actor nod for his dry performance is less deserving. Similarly, Hackman's blustering may not have merited an Oscar. Both nominations were due to star power. Jaimz Woolvett and Anna Levine were perhaps better, but their names are obscure, and their scenes comparatively few.