Big Trouble is coming to Big Whiskey.
A modern Western with its roots deeply fixed in the ruggedly beautiful landscapes and the harsh realities of life and death in the American West, Unforgiven well deserved its Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Director. Only the bare bones treatment by Warner is cause for concern.
Perhaps no actor in recent memory is so well known for placing his own stamp on a genre as is Clint Eastwood with the Western. From his earliest beginnings in Sergio Leone's "spaghetti Westerns" to his own stunning directorial efforts (High Plains Drifter, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Pale Rider), Eastwood breathed new life into the Western with his lean, gritty style and taste for allegory. Not only did his efforts cement his status as a popular icon, but perhaps more significantly his work as an actor and director has stood the test of time. By all appearances, Unforgiven will stand as his final word on the Western genre, with Eastwood pulling off an acting/directing/producing trifecta to ensure that his creative voice is heard loud and clear.
At the time of its theatrical release and in some of the comments that surfaced when Unforgiven has been released to video, much was made of a supposed political subtext in support of gun control. I found these claims to be exquisitely ironic. First of all, no less an authority than Clint Eastwood has stated quite clearly that he wanted to make a statement about the modern glorification of violence in books and movies (and presumably television!). He wanted to show the painful reality of men who use violence freely and easily, that their casual disregard for human life rapidly corrodes their soul, the ghosts of the murdered haunting them in perpetuity. To claim that this theme of Unforgiven is meant to support gun control is a startling non-sequitur, as Clint Eastwood's point is far beyond such a political debate. His point is more aimed at those in Hollywood who have made a lucrative career out of their hypocrisy, churning out movies loaded with casual violence while mouthing gun-control platitudes. (Exhibit A: Richard Donner. I rest my case.)
The irony is even deeper when the details of Unforgiven are closely examined. The gun control advocates who cite to this film must have forgotten that Big Whiskey is shown to have a no-exceptions firearm ban within its city limits. Not only does this give a de jure monopoly on force to an unfit government (in the personage of Little Bill Daggett), but this gun ban is utterly ineffective, considering the events of the film.
In any event, the Oscar-nominated script by David Webb Peoples (Blade Runner, Twelve Monkeys) is adapted by Clint Eastwood so as to wring out every last drop of power, tragedy, and drama. The length and breadth of the story has the time, defined characters, and moments of crisis to do justice to Eastwood's central theme. There are pauses, spaces of rest between crises, but never a wasted second in these seemingly short 127 minutes.
The events of the first few moments provide the central force behind Unforgiven. One rainy night in the lonely town of Big Whisky, Wyoming, in the year 1880, an ill-tempered cowboy, Quick Mike (David Mucci), takes exception to a prostitute's comment on the size of his manhood, so he whips out a knife and proceeds to carve up the face of Delilah Fitzgerald (Anna Levine). The prostitute's boss, Skinny Dubois (Anthony James) insists on compensation for his damaged "property," and so Sheriff Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman) decrees that Quick Mike and his dismayed partner, Davey Bunting (Rob Campbell), shall forfeit a number of ponies in restitution to Skinny. Needless to say, Strawberry Alice (Frances Fisher), the de facto mother for the group of Skinny's prostitutes, is outraged at such meager justice, and decides that pooling the group's life savings and putting out the word of a bounty on the heads of the two cowboys is the only way serve justice.
Reformed thief and notorious murderer William Munny (Clint Eastwood) is a man beset with problems, who has lost his wife and mother of his son and daughter and who struggles day by day to provide the barest essentials for his family. His situation is so desperate that after much soul searching he finds it necessary to return to the dark life he led before his wife had changed his life. So, with much trepidation, he accepts the partnership of The Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett), who arrives one day with news of Strawberry Alice's prize. However, Munny figures that if he is to be a killer once again, he must bring along a trusted friend and former colleague, Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman), whose farm is not much more successful than Munny's own.
While the trio makes its way to Big Whiskey, arriving before them is noted gunfighter English Bob (Richard Harris), whose courtly manners and shooting skill have so impressed a writer, W.W. Beauchamp (Saul Rubinek), that he is following English Bob as his biographer. However, when English Bob flouts Big Whiskey's strict ban on firearms possession, Little Bill, who knows quite a bit about English Bob's past, confronts him. Little Bill publicly makes a harsh example of English Bob, a bloody, painful message to all that anyone who dares to come to Big Whiskey to collect the bounty on Quick Mike and Davey will suffer dire consequences. Sensing an even better story, W.W. Beauchamp stays behind when English Bob is run out of town, leeching onto Little Bill, who takes great pleasure in regaling his new biographer with his own tales of life and death in the old West.
Unaware of the example made of English Bob, William Munny, Ned Logan, and the Schofield Kid ride into town on a dark and stormy night that hides the signs proclaiming Big Whiskey's firearms prohibition. Shortly after they make contact with Strawberry Alice and declare their intention to claim the bounty, the minions of Little Bill close in and punish Munny while his compatriots narrowly escape a similar fate. With help from Alice and her clan, Munny heals over time, and when he is well, they set to work with a vengeance. First Davey, then Quick Mike, in a nasty, grisly business that leaves Ned unable to follow though on the homicidal plan and shakes The Schofield Kid to the roots of his soul at the searing reality of murder.
The final conflict is triggered when Little Bill catches Ned Logan riding back home, having decided he could not wait while Munny and the Kid to complete their business. Subject to the tender mercies of Little Bill, Ned refuses to betray his erstwhile comrades. When Munny learns of his friend's peril, he alone rides into Big Whiskey to face down Little Bill and his minions with terrible retribution. In the end, "it's a hell of a thing, killing a man. You take all he's got, and all he's ever gonna. (…) We all have it coming."
I could go on about how the acting talent of Unforgiven is uniformly fantastic, but as soon as you see the names, you should understand. Not only are the big names—Clint Eastwood, Gene Hackman (The French Connection, Hoosiers, Absolute Power), Morgan Freeman (Glory, The Shawshank Redemption, Se7en), and Richard Harris (Camelot, Patriot Games, Gladiator)—in a glorious acting groove, but lesser known actors—Jaimz Woolvett as the blustering, brave-talking Schofield Kid, Frances Fisher (L.A. Story, Titanic, True Crime) as iron-willed prostitute matriarch Strawberry Alice, and Saul Rubinek (Wall Street, True Romance, Dick) as the meek, in-over-his-head reporter W. W. Beauchamp—are in championship form as well. If there were an ensemble Oscar, this group would certainly have been nominated (and in fact Gene Hackman did win for Best Supporting Actor!).
Being a relatively early release, I can understand why the anamorphic video transfer is not quite up to current standards. While the earth-toned palette is somewhat limiting, those colors which do make an appearance (primarily in the landscape and sky) are appropriately intense. Also to the picture's credit are the absence of digital enhancement artifacts and the tight rein on dirt and film defects, except for the notable film grain. Sadly, other aspects of the transfer are less praiseworthy. At no time could you characterize the picture as better than soft, and at times it is perilously close to blurry. Not surprisingly, shadow detail is fair to poor, especially in the numerous dimly lit indoor sequences.
The remastered 5.1 mix excels at creating the proper sense of atmosphere. When the weather turns foul in Unforgiven, you really feel as if you are at the center of a big rain cloud with drops falling all over and a few thunderclaps thrown in for good measure. Aside from weather and some usage during the gunfight scenes, your rear surrounds get an easy job, and the LFE channel primarily adds punch to the bad weather and gunfire. The action (dialogue and gunfire) is primarily reserved for the front soundstage, but it is clean and clear, with appropriate and well-defined channel effects. For a Western, this is about as natural and sonically pleasing an audio mix as you are likely to hear.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
For a movie that has such a collection of talent and which garnered such critical acclaim, Unforgiven is given a bare bones treatment by Warner. The only extra content is a lone page of production notes and a limited cast bio/filmography section, without even the usual theatrical trailer. This is simply unacceptable treatment for a film of its stature. A full-blown special edition would be nice, but even a basic package of content would be nice. Complete Bio/Filmographies, trailers, a featurette, or a commentary track, are these too much to ask?
Though Unforgiven has its flaws as a DVD, it still is a worthy film to grace the shelves of any Western aficionado or fan of Clint Eastwood. For the rest of you, a rental is strongly recommended, for you should not miss such a powerful story, solid acting, and thoughtful film essay on the cost and nature of violence.
Unforgiven is so impressive that the prosecution has wisely decided to refuse to file any charges, though Warner is cautioned to ensure that all future releases of such stature are fairly treated upon their DVD release.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Production Notes
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