Judge Ryan Keefer knows what the answer is to the math problem of adding Clint Eastwood to a western film, and so should you.
"It's a hell of a thing to kill a man. To take everything he has, and everything he ever will have."
Clint Eastwood had hit a bit of a career rut in the late '80s and early '90s. He appeared in or directed such cinematic gems as The Rookie, The Dead Pool and Pink Cadillac. He managed to keep a hold onto a script for a number of years, a sleepy Western film that flew in the face of any of his previous Western film appearances and ruminated on larger themes. So once he finally released Unforgiven to the Western world, the response was so well received that it spawned a career resurgence with Eastwood, and his making such films as Million Dollar Baby, Mystic River and A Perfect World that have been consistent (almost annual) marvels. So upon further review, is Unforgiven as good as everyone remembers it?
Facts of the Case
William Munny (Eastwood) quietly lives on a farm with his two kids. He is a widower, and his late wife helped him through a very bloodthirsty streak in his younger days. A youngster named the Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett, Dead Presidents), who gave himself the nickname for the type of pistol he has, gives him an interesting proposition. A prostitute in town has been brutalized, and the town's sheriff, named Little Bill, (Gene Hackman, The Royal Tenenbaums) has done virtually nothing to resolve it. There is a substantial reward associated with finding out who did it and Munny needs the money. Before taking on this mission, he decides to reunite with his friend Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman, Million Dollar Baby) to see if he wants to do it. Before they get into town, a different gunslinger named English Bob (Richard Harris, Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone) along with his biographer (Saul Rubinek, True Romance) come into Big Whiskey, Wyoming to attempt to bring some justice for the girl and the other prostitutes. Little Bill stops Bob before he can do anything and imprisons him before sending him out of town. And, after stopping in town and getting assaulted by Bill, Munny returns, possessing his faculties and a sense of revenge.
Eastwood's "ace in the hole" script that he finally made in 1992 provides for excellent viewing. He goes a long way to dispel myths of the prototypical Western tough guy role that he crystallized in the Sergio Leone films of the past. This cruel, vicious, coldhearted killer of years past is now a pig farmer, falling down in mud and slop as he tries to do his job. Even after he decides to accept the Kid's offer and go to Big Whiskey, he falls down and repeatedly has trouble with mounting his horse. The message is clear that Eastwood is a little more of a "frail old male" that people were expecting, and that he should have some empathy from the viewer. But the persistent theme throughout the film is the violence that the characters exhibit. When English Bob is arrested, he is brutally beaten by Little Bill in the middle of town before he's sent to jail. The people clearly view the man who serves and protects them a little differently after that. Bob's biographer has embellished his murderous past, and Bill is enchanted by it, so much so that Bill enlists the assistance of Bob's biographer for his stories. The Kid's tough past is stated frequently, but never seems to be truly believed. It's Munny's past that is interesting for a couple of reasons; one because at least on one occasion, the stories people know about him are understated. He has actually killed more people than many expect. Which leads me to the other reason, and that is that he is more than aware of what he's done in the past, and he knows the horror that plagues him about it, so it's better left unsaid. Compare the story of Munny's killing of two people to Bob's story that is recalled in jail, and the differences are many. During a scene where Munny, Ned and the Kid catch up to one of the cowboys, there's a scene that defines both Ned and Munny, and Ned seems to be the more "rehabilitated" of the two.
Warner has taken an interesting approach to their HD DVD strategy so far. While there are a couple of films that have been released to take advantage of the audio power behind the new technology, they have also re-released the Oscar winners or critical favorites as well, which is pleasing, and the new HD version of Unforgiven looks like a beautiful film. The long shots of the scenery are a revelation, and a lot more depth and detail is revealed that couldn't have been visible before. On the initial trip to Big Whiskey with Ned and the Kid, the red in Eastwood's shirt is a striking shade of burgundy. The vast landscapes and countryside really get a chance to shine here.
After a lackluster minimal first edition and a two disc edition celebrating the film's 10th anniversary, this new HD version puts everything all on one disc. Starting things off, there is a commentary with Time film critic Richard Schickel, who has also done some work as a bit of a biographer on Eastwood. He really doesn't bring that much new material to the table, and a lot of time is spent watching the film. Perhaps he shot his wad on some of the other subsequent features on this disc. Skipping past the trailer and transitioning over to the meatier extras, there are a few decent looks at the man and his films that are somewhat cerebral. The first is called "All on Accounta Pullin' a Trigger," and is a look at the film from the stars. Narrated by Freeman, the film focuses more on plot details and character depth than it does from talking about how good it was to work with everyone and with the director. Because it lacked that type of bland fluff, it was a very nice change of pace from what I was used to seeing, and I liked it very much. Going onto "Eastwood and Company: Making Unforgiven," a making-of piece produced by Schickel and narrated by Hal Holbrook (Magnum Force), not having seen this in awhile, I had forgotten just how in-depth this was at showing how Eastwood operates as a director on set. It almost starts as a generic piece, but this also dives into the in-depth stuff from start to finish. It's cool to see all of the various different crew members on Eastwood sets talk about how long they've been working with Clint, some as far back as the Rawhide days. And there's a lot of cast and crew goofing around that's cute (including a muddy Hackman impression of Marlon Brando), and they even squeeze some time in to concentrate on Eastwood's prominent other film roles and his place in "Man with No Name" westerns of the '60s. All in all, this is a pretty good extra.
Next, there's a feature and the focus in on Eastwood (entitled "Eastwood: A Star"), but it's a quick hit more than anything else, as it focuses on the man and the roles he's been in. The longer (and better) version that focuses on Eastwood was produced by Schickel and entitled "Eastwood on Eastwood." This was produced around the time that 1997's Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil was released. Narrated by that film's star John Cusack (High Fidelity), the piece is a fascinating look on Eastwood that is rather all-encompassing, accompanied by some thoughts from the man. While it may not be completely exhaustive, there's a lot of photos and home video footage that makes things worth it. The highlights of his career are discussed in detail, and a couple of the more underrated films are included too. The theme after watching the extras on this feature is that Eastwood feels that Honkytonk Man should have been given more respect than it got. Throwing that aside (along with his statement that Heartbreak Ridge was his "ultimate statement on macho"), this is another quality extra on a disc that has a few with good information. For kitsch, Eastwood's appearance on the Maverick television show of the '50s is here too, and watching a 20-something Eastwood match wits with a 20-something James Garner (The Rockford Files) is quite a sight.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
While Unforgiven isn't the quintessential perfect film, there's nothing to complain about on this release or on the two-disc standard version.
The film is an excellent look at a man's past, and that as much as he tries to run away from it, it's always around the corner, ready to stare him in the face. For those who bought the initial version, the upgrade to the Anniversary Edition is a worthwhile one, and the video quality is upgraded enough on the HD version to make this a solid disc.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Commentary by Critic Richard Schickel
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