Warner Bros. // 1992 // 131 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Dennis Prince (Retired) // March 12th, 2007
Some legends can never be forgotten. Some wrongs can never be forgiven.
For all the things that Clint Eastwood practiced in his career, in front of and behind the camera, reservation was never among them. In fact, the iconic actor famous as the Man with No Name and the San Francisco cop with no compunctions always remained true to his characters, no matter how ruthless or unorthodox they might be. So when this hardened character actor determined to take on the role of gunslinger William Munny in 1992's Unforgiven, Eastwood never wavered in his character's convictions. The difference here, however, is that William Munny is a has-been; a long-feared killer whose illustrious days are long gone. He's reformed, he's contemplative -- and he's a lousy shot now, too.
Without a doubt, Unforgiven is the greatest anti-Western ever committed to film. Eastwood showed he was just as committed to this project and his own performance as he had been in all his work that had gone before.
William Munny is a retired gunslinger who has taken up pig farming in his latter years. To watch him flail in the mud and attempt to segregate feverish swine from the healthy ones, it's difficult to believe this is the same ruthless and cold-blooded killer who would unflinchingly take the lives of men, women, and children, unfailing and unrepentant through a mean-spirited haze of perpetual drunkenness. All this changed, though, after Will met his now departed wife, Claudia (God rest her soul), the only one ever capable of convincing him to reject his evil ways and live a decent and sober life. But today Will is considering strapping on his guns one more time, after a young gunslinger, the boastful 'Schofield Kid' (Jaimz Woolvett, Rites of Passage) tells of a reward put up by a group of prostitutes in Big Whiskey, eager to exact revenge on two cowboys who cut up one of their girls. Struggling in his farming, Will determines he badly needs the money to support his two young children, and sets off to do the job. He enlists the assistance of his former gunslinger partner, the similarly retired Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman, An Unfinished Life). Collectively, the three make their way Big Whiskey to cut down the cowboys and claim the reward. Of course, Big Whiskey is a progressive town, one where guns aren't allowed by proclamation of the sadistic town sheriff, Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman, The Quick and the Dead). When another reward-seeker, the legendary 'English Bob' (Richard Harris, A Man Called Horse), breaks the town decree, he's disarmed and violently descended upon by the brutal Little Bill. Meanwhile, as William, Ned, and the Kid position themselves to gun down the cowboys, they realize their own hesitations and ponder the resonant personal effects their actions may have. A face-off with Little Bill becomes inevitable, as the day of reckoning arrives for Munny.
Unforgiven contains all the earmarks of a traditional Western action film. From the wide-open vistas to the rutted town streets to the hair-trigger tension of men in mortal standoffs, every recognizable element is on display here -- that is, until we're presented the foreign notion of a flagging gunslinger strangely seeking absolution for his past sins. The paradoxical nature of the film is quickly established and serves to make viewers immediately anxious, maybe uncomfortable, that this won't be another clichéd shoot-em-up affair. And that's Eastwood's intention with his faithful adaptation of the screenplay by David Webb Peoples (of Blade Runner acclaim) -- to finally portray the harsh reality of 1800s western life...and death. At the outset we see this vicious killer, Munny, as a caring father (albeit an inept pig farmer), such that we can hardly believe this muddy mess of a man could ever have been a "meaner-than-Hell cold-blooded damn killer." Munny's different now, and, seemingly, so is the Old West. Munny feels obliged to present an upright image to his children despite the fascination he commands in the overeager Schofield Kid. Munny has found little reason to strap on a gun since having met Claudia, (God rest her soul), and now realizes he's afraid of dying, a vulnerability never mentioned in those five-cent novels of days past. In truth, Munny is a man with a name; a weathered and worn cowboy with a pained conscience, which presents the audience with a paradox they never expected.
Even as Munny determines to take up his guns once more, viewers likely anticipating a rousing rebirth of the killer who still has his edge, we see that he can't hit a coffee tin with a six-shooter, and even struggles to mount a horse. He looks uncomfortable donning his gear and such, the sort that he mastered and managed with ease long ago, now fumbling and fidgeting as if it were ill-fitting clothing. Most of all, we see that he hurts, physically and emotionally, as if the weight of his past exploits have ultimately grown to haunt him mercilessly for the rest of his days.
Conscience is what afflicts Munny, and accountability has reared its ugly head to remind him of the mercy he never spared to those unfortunate enough to have faced the callous barrel of his gun. This is where Unforgiven decides it will tell its story, a tale that dismisses the romantic ramblings that have irresponsibly depicted the Old West in fanciful fashion. Instead, it elects to confront its characters -- and its audience -- with the bitter truths of the untamed setting and, most poignantly, the dreadful remorse that inevitably comes after a man's life has been taken. Again, this is an anti-Western at work, and Eastwood and crew execute it with committed magnificence.
Admirably, Eastwood's approach here, the unmaking of the iconic cowboy character, dares to work off screen as much as it does on screen. By that, as Eastwood boldly deconstructs the infamy of Munny -- applicable, perhaps, to many of his previous gunslinger roles -- he applies the same undoing to an element of his own iconic career. Eastwood admits he had the script for Unforgiven for some time, electing to wait until he himself had aged to the point where he could faithfully step into the role. Embracing his own inevitable aging, Eastwood presents himself as he is (or, as he was in 1992), his face lined, his hair grayed, and his body sagging from the effects of time. Again, this is an admirable move on the astute actor/director's part, recognizing how new roles present themselves in age as they had in youth. Eastwood makes the most of this reality and delivers a sobering tale of a "hero" whose own mortality is ever approaching.
There is an ever greater realism to be found within Unforgiven, one that allows us to discover what happens after the gunfight is over and the gunfighter finds himself with time to assess his actions. This element affects all of the characters, from the Schofield Kid realizing there's no rewarding feeling gained from shooting a defenseless man, to Ned Logan being unexpectedly confronted with his own loss of nerve when attempting an ambush. English Bob likewise must pay the piper when his illustrious exploits are exposed as fraud. Even Little Bill Daggett finds no security in his ambitious, albeit aggressive, attempts to impose gun control in Big Whiskey. The romance is gone, the bravado removed, and cuts and bruises don't magically disappear after a few quick scene changes. What is left is the bitter truth of a time when life was hard and death came all too easy. For this, Unforgiven excels as a modern day Western -- some have called it "revisionist" -- arriving to provide a grounding contrast to the wild west adventures that have come before.
The film collected the lion's share of the major awards of 1993, including Best Director (Eastwood), Best Supporting Actor (Hackman), Best Editing (Joel Cox), and Best Picture. Additional nominations included Best Actor (Eastwood), Best Art Direction (Henry Bumstead and Janice Blackie-Goodine), Best Cinematography (Jack N. Green), Best Sound (Les Fresholtz, et al.), and Best Screenplay (David Webb Peoples). The film stood rightly poised to sweep the entire awards ceremony, an acknowledgement of its achievement in presenting its unorthodox yet unforgettable impact.
Some fifteen years following its original theatrical debut, Unforgiven is now available in its newest home video incarnation by way of this Blu-ray disc. The image is presented in the same 1080p / VC-1 master that was used for its HD DVD counterpart. The 2.40:1 widescreen presentation immediately presents vivid vistas of the rustic Wyoming countryside (actually filmed in Alberta, Canada) that deliver details of practical every shaft of grain and every leaf on every tree. Set details are exquisite, with every trace of wood grain plainly visible. Period costumes reveal authentic textures and stitching, and those aging actors' faces bear every line and crease that tell the stories of adventures gone by. Color saturation is rich and true, offering a well-rendered palette that is consistent with the film's original production design from start to finish. The dark levels are a bit more problematic, since Eastwood insisted on natural-looking lighting, thereby losing some detail within the shadows and often presenting flattened contrast -- however authentic -- that challenges detail visibility. To this end, some scenes look a bit soft, yet most are quite vivid and dimensional. All in all, it's a visual treat that easily outperforms previous Standard Definition treatments.
The audio is well represented in the present Dolby Digital 5.1 track. Unfortunately, this track isn't a significant improvement over the SD release, but it performs well to provide an all-encompassing sense of thunder, rainfall, and explosive gunfire. The dialog is generally clear but does become a bit difficult to interpret on a few odd occasions.
As for extras, it's refreshing to see this BD-50 dual-layer disc makes the most of its boasted storage capacity, delivering a bevy of bonus features that faithfully represent the collection of materials released to date. To this end, you'll find a feature-length commentary from Eastwood biographer Richard Shickel, a largely informative track that's a bit monotone and sometimes lapses into silence. Four documentaries are included: All on Accounta Pullin' a Trigger is the most promotional in feel, consisting of cast and crew interview snippets intertwined with film clips; the superior Eastwood & Co.: Making Unforgiven, narrated by Hal Holbrook and providing much more tantalizing behind-the-scenes footage and commentary; Eastwood on Eastwood, a cable-made 108-minute documentary that traces Eastwood's film career, both acting and directing, and serves as a dutiful summation of the man's accomplishments; and Eastwood...a Star, the most quirky of the lot, a rather unashamed pitching of Eastwood product. Extras continue with a welcome original episode of Maverick in which actor James Garner goes up against the young and dangerous Eastwood. Last is the original theatrical trailer for Unforgiven. As you can see, from end to end, this Blu-ray disc is a responsible re-mastering of all elements that have gone before, and, given the extra goodness of high-definition, makes for an easy purchase.
On accounta Ordinance 17 here at Big Verdict, rebuttals won't be tol'rated in this here courtroom, not for this picture. Y'understand?
Unforgiven continues to be an excellent picture and a very poignant Western in Clint Eastwood's body of work. Considering it may have been the actor's final Western adventure, it properly sets the record straight with everything Eastwood himself felt needed to be said about the genre. As a well-performing high-definition release, one that's technically competent and materially complete, this serves as an admirable upgrade for any SD version you may currently own.
Review content copyright © 2007 Dennis Prince; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 2.40:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Spanish)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Spanish)
Running Time: 131 Minutes
Release Year: 1992
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Audio commentary by Richard Shickel
* Documentary: All on Accounta Pullin' a Trigger
* Documentary: Eastwood & Co.: Making Unforgiven
* Documentary: Eastwood on Eastwood
* Documentary: Eastwood... a Star
* Vintage Maverick Episode, "Duel at Sundown"
* Theatrical trailer