Release Date: 3 August, 1992
Oscar Ceremony: 29 March, 1993
Director: Clint Eastwood
Starring: Clint Eastwood, Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman
Nominees: The Crying Game, A Few Good Men, Howards End, Scent of a Woman
“It’s a hell of a thing, killing a man. Take away all he’s got, and all he’s ever gonna have.” – Will Munny
For the longest time, Cimarron (1931) was the only Western to ever win Best Picture. Here we are 60 years later and suddenly not one, but TWO Westerns win within the span of two years: Dances with Wolves and Unforgiven. On top of that, they both happen to star the director. Personally I preferred Dances with Wolves, but Unforgiven wasn’t bad either.
Unlike Dances with Wolves, Unforgiven has a pretty classic Western-genre plot. In the small town of Big Whiskey, Wyoming in 1880, two cowboys mutilate a young prostitute’s face after she laughs at the small size of one of their penises. The local sheriff Little Bill Dagget (Gene Hackman) lets them off easy and simply suggests that they pay a compensation to the brothel owner. Naturally, the prostitutes do not believe that this mild punishment justifies the crime, so they take matters into their own hands and offer a $1,000 reward to whoever can kill the cowboys.
A young, macho, rookie cowboy nicknamed The Schofield Kid decides he’s going to take them up on their offer and sets out to recruit the notorious retired gunfighter, Will Munny (Clint Eastwood) to help him get the job done. However, despite his violent manslaughtering past, Munny insists that he “ain’t like that anymore,” especially since his wife died and he’s left to care for his two kids. However, after realizing the dire circumstances he finds himself in, he decides to go for it in order to support his family. On his way to catch up with The Schofield Kid, Munny visits an old friend, Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman), in the hopes of enlisting his help. Just like Munny, Logan doesn’t do that type of stuff anymore and he points out that neither would Munny if his wife were still alive. In the end, both men go ahead and attempt to take on the challenge in the hopes of providing a better life for their families.
I can’t say the story of this movie was out of this world; the overall premise was fairly generic. However, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t good. You know what they say: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. The movie is actually very well written and despite its artistic slow pace, it’s entertaining. As usual, Clint Eastwood aces the whole mysterious brooding hero thing so it’s hard to argue against his decision to cast himself as Munny. The nature of his character, as well as most of the others, is dark and melancholic. Unforgiven is not a cheery action Western where they catch the bad guy and they all live happily ever after; it’s far more complicated than that. The lines between good and bad are blurred and it’s never 100% clear who stands where.
I need take a paragraph for a mini-rant. When referring to the victim, the characters keep saying things like “she doesn’t have a face left!” or “she was disfigured!” I’m not sure that means what they think it means. Honestly when I first read the plot and saw the word disfigured, I was expecting to see some sort of monster. I do not mean to belittle what happened to her – it’s horrifying for sure. I’m just saying that she still looks pretty and the wounds could probably have been worse. It’s not like she got burned by acid or chewed off by Hannibal Lecter. Instead of focusing on how traumatic the incident must have been for her, the film focuses on what it did to her looks. If the studio was too scared to actually make her look disfigured because that would make her unattractive, then they shouldn’t keep using the word and expect us to buy it.
Alright I’m done. I know it doesn’t really matter, but it’s just one of those things that annoy me, like when everyone in the Harry Potter movies keeps saying Harry has his mother’s eyes and the filmmakers couldn’t bother hiring an actress with the same eye colour to play her. ANYWAYS, back to Unforgiven, one of its fortes is its cinematography. There are so many gorgeous shots, which add a nice contrast to the desolation of the subject matter. As you watch it, you rarely forget that this is a high-caliber film that is meant to impress all kinds of audiences.
In the end, Unforgiven is a revenge film that makes you question the payoffs. It’s also a thoughtful tribute to Eastwood’s predecessors and the universe that gave him his breakthrough. I’m not 100% sure it deserved to beat Scent of a Woman, but its victory is certainly not unjustified.