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Unforgiven (1992)

by on 2011/06/30

“I wouldn’t normally pay notice to high country like this . . . but I sure notice now.”

* * * *

For years on end I didn’t “get” Unforgiven. Despite its popularity, critical acclaim, Oscar recognition, ownership, and repeated screenings, I never felt or understood its appeal. Then, nearly a decade after its release, I suddenly found I enjoyed it immensely. Another decade along again, and I appreciate it even more. It’s a film which gives me a sense of hope that the ones I don’t like might one day turn a corner and win me over too.

The action begins in 1880, in the town of Big Whiskey, Wyoming, with the maiming of a hostess by her client. When the man is released with an unusually light punishment, a group of prostitutes pools their savings as a reward for his death.

Meanwhile, in Kansas, former outlaw William Munny (Fistful of Dollars‘ Clint Eastwood) hears of the bounty. He leaves his farm in the care of his children, and seeks out the fortune, with the help of his friend Ned Logan (The Shawshank Redemption’s Morgan Freeman) and the so-called Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvet). Along the way, they must confront their quarry, a corrupt Sheriff, Bill Daggett (The Quick and the Dead’s Gene Hackman), and their own limitations.

More than a simple tale of revenge, Unforgiven is also a meditation on the evolution of legends, mortality, morality, and the possibility of redemption. This narrative proves a deliberate pace can still be involving, given interesting characters, and the tension of something at stake that they value.

I was surprised at the various artistic touches scattered throughout the script, things I hadn’t noticed before, and nothing obtrusive or heavy-handed. On his farm, Munny has an issue with the hogs, a few of which have a fever, and need to be separated from the others. He returns to face his demons in a town named for the drink his late wife cured his thirst for. And, as two opposing sides of the very same coin, protagonist and antagonist share similar names: Bill and William.

On a production level, a similar blend of complexities works well. The composition of establishing shots — of homesteads, fields, and towns — does wonders for the cinematography. In moments of less grandeur, faces rise from the intimate depths of an onscreen night, isolated in highlighted relief. My only complaint was in the near-constant shifting of focus, where objects of interest slowly blurred and clarified. This distracting phenomenon may have been intended, though I rather suspect it was an issue related to the medium. (Or perhaps to the video’s mastering.)

Overall, however, things came together well. In retrospect, I can hardly imagine what it was I didn’t see in earlier viewings. Here’s something we find in numerous westerns: aging relics of a bygone era and, inevitably, time catching up. But where I’ve been disappointed by this theme’s execution elsewhere, Eastwood offers us elder gunmen who aren’t completely pathetic. Unforgiven succeeds in realizing everything I expected from The Wild Bunch, and more.

* * * *

Rated 14A (Canada) / R (United States)

131 minutes

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