Friday, August 12, 2011
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 68
Writer: David Webb Peoples
Director: Clint Eastwood
Star: Clint Eastwood, Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman
The Western genre has always been unique in the way it embraces its characters’ histories. The other genres, from horror to period drama to comedy, tend to sidestep backgrounds and history, giving the viewer the feeling that the characters began existing the moment the film began, complete with one or two quirks or traits, but not much else. That is not so with the Western. Every Western on the AFI Top 100…hell, every great or even good Western…involves what happened long before the movie began just as much as what happens during the film itself. “Unforgiven” is no exception.
Clint Eastwood (who also directed) plays Bill Munny, who was, long ago, a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad man who was drunk most of the time and had a tendency to kill people when drunk. But that was before he fell in love and married a woman who set him on the right path. As the film opens he stands near her gravestone. He has two kids to take care of now and little money to do it with, so when a young man named the Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett) rides up with a very enticing offer, Munny finds it hard to refuse.
The offer is $1000 to any man or men who kill two roughians who have sliced up a whore’s face. After some initial resistance, Munny goes to his old partner Logan (Morgan Freeman) and the three of them set off together. Little do they know the town they ride toward is run by a sadistic devil of a sheriff named Little Bill (Gene Hackman), who will beat a man within inches of his life for carrying a gun into the town, but does nothing to penalize the two men who cut up the woman.
Much is made of who Munny was before and his effort to not be that man anymore. He sounds rehearsed every time he talks about the evil things he’s done and how he was saved from his wickedness. He refuses whiskey even when hit with a horrible fever. Munny seems to be over-insisting that he’s a changed man, and even though he is trying to deliver justice, he can only kid himself for so long since he will be murdering two men he has no personal vendetta against. When the film focuses on that inner turmoil it is at its best.
We want to know more about the Logan character and his relationship to Munny, especially since Logan’s death is the turning point for the entire movie, but writer David Webb Peoples is stingy in developing him much more than that he’ll cheat on his wife with whores. What gravitas is brought to the character is thanks to Freeman’s performance, and the character simply acts as someone to speak his deep thoughts to.
It’s a shame, because Peoples had the opportunity to deliver a really emotional sucker punch, but instead keeps shifting around to other characters. Richard Harris appears as English Bob, shoots some birds and then gets beaten by Little Bill. Harris is great, but his character has nothing to do with the drive of the story other than to show us Little Bill’s craziness (something perfectly illustrated elsewhere). He never encounters Munny or Logan, and nothing has changed after he’s left the movie.
The time spent with English Bob would have been better spent on Logan, or even on the fascinating, also under-developed, Strawberry Alice (Frances Fisher), mistress extraordinaire, who puts the bounty out when Little Bill refuses to do anything.
Peoples seems to be trying to paint a diverse, interesting canvas of characters, and does to a degree, but the ultimate result is that the movie becomes unfocused when tension should be building. Luckily, the acting throughout is uniformly excellent and sometimes manages to make up for the scattershot script. I must admit, though, that there are a number of fantastic details Peoples presents us with that impressed me. Making the Scofield Kid near-sighted felt refreshing since ocular abilities is almost never addressed in Westerns, shocking since it is so important to everyone who owns a gun in those movies. Giving Little Bill a whip to further drive his horrors home. The Writer character explaining why Munny chose to shoot who he shot in what order after the fact. All great moments.
Eastwood is the most consistent of directors. He rarely shows off with the camera, and instead of using tricks or quick-cutting allows the scenes to breathe. This results in an even pace and slow build, both of which feel refreshing in an era where we are force-fed wild changes in pacing thanks to a generation afflicted with filmmaking ADD. What else Eastwood’s even-handed approach gives the film is a tonal consistency that might otherwise be missing. For instance, the film opens with a static distant shot of Eastwood standing over the grave of his wife while we read about his history with her. A moment later we are in a whorehouse watching a woman’s face be sliced up and urine being thrown everywhere. In any other movie, this kind of shift would bring everything grinding to a halt, but since it’s Eastwood and because his direction is so sure, we accept it simply as another part of the world he’s slowly presenting to us.
Despite not seeming to show off, Eastwood’s films have a style that is instantly recognizable. This film couldn’t be more different than “Changeling,” which couldn’t be more removed from “The Bridges of Madison County,” and yet they still feel like the same, sure hand guided them.
“Unforgiven” doesn’t match the same quality of the Westerns Eastwood did for Sergio Leone, like “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” but it’s an entertaining, well-acted and directed film. I wish that the script had managed to rise to the quality around it, but even with that I still enjoyed myself a lot. Still, can I think of at least a dozen other Westerns that would be better placed on the AFI top 100? Yep.
My Score (out of 5): ***