Judge Russell Engebretson is rootin' tootin' but he don't like shootin'.
"I've always been lucky when it comes to killin' folks."—William Munny
Unforgiven, Clint Eastwood's grand farewell to the Western, is as great today as it was twenty years ago, one of those rare movies that fully deserved its Academy Award for Best Picture, as viewers of Unforgiven (Blu-ray) DigiBook will see.
In 1880, in the town of Big Whiskey, Wyoming, a prostitute is knife-slashed across the face multiple times by a drunken cowboy. The sheriff, Little Bill (Gene Hackman, The Conversation), at first threatens to bullwhip the cowboy and his friend. However, at the urging of Skinny (Anthony James, Blue Thunder), the saloon/bordello owner, he agrees to release them if they promise to return next spring with some ponies as payment to Skinny for his "damaged goods." An older prostitute, Strawberry Alice (Frances Fisher, The Lincoln Lawyer), is outraged at the deal. Bending to Alice's angry entreaties, the other prostitutes pool together a thousand dollars to entice a bounty hunter to deliver swift justice to the guilty cowpokes.
William Munny (Clint Eastwood, A Fistful of Dollars), a notorious reformed outlaw, now widowed and caring for his two children while trying to scratch a living out of his failing pig farm, is visited by the self-styled Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett), a young gunslinger who wants to recruit Munny to track down the cowboys and collect the prostitutes' reward money. Munny agrees, but only if he's allowed to bring along his old partner, Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman, Invictus).
In the meantime, an assassin by the name of English Bob (Richard Harris, A Man Called Horse) sashays into Big Whiskey to make good on the prostitutes' offer, only to earn a brutal beating from sheriff Little Bill. English Bob is sent packing, but Will Munny, "a known thief and murderer, a man of notoriously vicious and intemperate disposition," is on the way, remorseful of his many crimes, yet unswayed in his determination to track down the cowboys, kill them, and collect his bounty money.
Many viewings, in the theater and at home, have not diminished my enthusiasm for this bleak and dark meditation on violence. Unforgiven is a complex story with a large cast, yet it seems plain-spoken and simple. I think that's due, in large part, to the magnificent editing (for which Joel Cox won an Oscar) that so deftly juggles the multiple story lines, and David Webb Peoples' well-researched script that seems to accurately capture genuine late-nineteenth century speech and mannerisms. As Eastwood said, the language has a formality that rings rather oddly, with an almost comic effect, to modern ears. It's interesting to compare the mildly profane language in Unforgiven to the purposefully exaggerated obscenities in Deadwood. Each approach works in its own way, although I prefer the more historically realistic diction that Peoples wrote. Peoples also creates a set of well-rounded characters, the sort of roles that beg to be filled by first-rate actors, and the film boasts quite a lineup.
The top players include Eastwood's tormented killer, Hackman's effective but sadistic lawman, Fisher's stubborn, unforgiving prostitute, Freeman's genuinely reformed outlaw who acquiesces too easily to his friend's offer, Harris' psychotic English assassin, and Woolvett's blustering outlaw wannabe, who discovers the real price of coldblooded murder. Gene Hackman deservedly won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, but there is not a weak performance in sight throughout the length of the movie.
Concerning the transfer, the darkness of the film has been problematic on all its tape and disc incarnations. Clint Eastwood wanted the film shot in natural light whenever possible. That means we get a nice, realistic appearance for daytime shots, but many interior and night scenes are flat and rife with black crush. The 1997 DVD transfer was poor, with the 2002 Special Edition DVD bringing a marked improvement to the picture. The Blu-ray, presented in 1080p/2.40:1, is a big jump in quality beyond the DVD, with much better detail and color; however, the aforementioned lighting choices are still present, only to a lesser degree. There's no getting around the fact that the original picture elements are murky in the darker scenes, and actors' faces with strong daytime light behind them are filled with shadows. I don't know if a better transfer could be eked out of the film, but because this release was not re-mastered, this video encode (the same used for the HD-DVD) is probably the best we'll see for quite some time. The 5.1 Dolby Digital track is adequate, but it would have been nice to hear a re-authored high-res soundtrack. Gunshots and thunder do not have the realistic, reverberant quality of DTS lossless audio, and the dialogue, background sounds, and music do not have that extra snap and depth that we have come to expect on Blu-ray transfers.
Extras, as in the earlier high-def releases and Collector's Edition DVD, include Richard Schickel's audio commentary, a theatrical trailer, four documentaries ("All on Accounta Pullin' a Trigger," "Eastwood & Co.: Making Unforgiven," "Eastwood…A Star," and "Eastwood on Eastwood"), plus an episode from Maverick, "Duel at Sundown."
This twentieth anniversary edition of Unforgiven is nothing more than a repackaging of the previously released 2006 Blu-ray: same extras, same Dolby Digital 5.1 audio, same screen printed art on the disc. The only difference being the digibook case and glued-in booklet. The fifty-four-page booklet contains a "letter" about the film from Clint Eastwood, short bios of the actors, and an essay by Richard Schickel with a liberal sprinkling of full-color photos.
In a transparently obvious marketing ploy, Unforgiven (Blu-ray) DigiBook coincides with the disc release of Eastwood's latest picture, J. Edgar. The digibook will appeal to collectors and completists, but the earlier, plain Jane Blu-ray edition (with identical picture, sound, and extras) is almost half the price. Owners of previous editions will have to decide if a double-dip is worthwhile, but this Western should, in one form or another, be in every film lover's library.
Not guilty, but still unforgiven.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
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