Unforgiven is a gritty Western with a realistic feel. The movie traces the journey of a retired gunslinger, enticed out of retirement by a huge bounty he believes can make a difference for his family.
The other nominees for Best Picture that year were The Crying Game, A Few Good Men, Howards End and Scent of a Woman. In addition to Best Picture, Unforgiven also won Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Hackman), Best Director, and Best Film Editing.
From the opening scenes, it was clear the movie was a western. And yet, this was a very different type of western. Instead of a black-hatted villain, terrorizing a small town, the villains of this tale are petty, almost pathetic. In contrast, Sheriff "Little" Bill Daggett (Hackman) rules the town with a harshness born of experience and practicality. He is judge, jury, and executioner, determined to minimize crime.
When we first meet Bill Munny (Eastwood), a retired gunslinger and widower, he is subsisting on a plot of land with his two small children. He is slopping pigs, directing the kids -- his only helpers -- on how to assist him. A young cowboy, the Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett) comes looking for him to recruit him for one last job. Although Munny originally turns him down, he reconsiders after evaluating his family's own fragile finances.
Along the way, he calls on his friend, Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman), also retired, and convinces him to come along. Both men have put their violent past behind them but agree to take the job for practical reasons.
In many ways, the two Bills are similar: eager to put the past behind them and yet dragged once more into facing it. Little Bill, the sheriff, is building himself a home and settles criminal disputes in ways he believes will cause the least disturbance to the town. Bill Munny is in the midst of a moral crisis: having promised his late wife that he would give up all wickedness, including drinking and shooting, he nevertheless feels he must do this job in order to provide for his young children. Likewise, Ned Logan goes along with it simply out of loyalty to an old friend.
Romanticized notions of the lawless west are represented by the Kid and by a biographer following another old gunslinger, known as English Bob. Both of them repeat stories they've heard of feats of daring, but Munny is reluctant to speak about his past. The sheriff, however, given the opportunity, is happy to poke holes in the myths. His stories are rougher than the legends; unapologetic, even crude.
In a sense, this movie does the same for the Western as a genre: providing an unflinching look at this part of American history, acknowledging the brutality and senselessness of the stories that have been mythologized and romanticized.
The movie can also be seen as a sequel, of sorts, to the westerns Eastwood did in the '60s. Back then, his Man with No Name was an unapologetic scoundrel, an opportunist, an antihero. Bill Munny in Unforgiven feels like he could be the same character, decades later, having tired of his ways and having struggled for redemption. The movie argues that such a character can never truly be redeemed, that the weight of his misdeeds will always haunt him.
A unique western, taking an anti-violent stance, this film finds a place alongside such films as The Shootist, which incidentally inspired the screenwriter of Unforgiven. When I first watched it about 15 years ago, I thought it was the western to end all westerns, and I still believe that. This movie reinvents the genre, by ripping away the romance and delivering a raw, unforgiving look at this slice of our American past.
Rating: ***** (5 out of 5 stars)
The western will never be the same.