Filmmaker Firsts: Clint Eastwood

#5: Unforgiven (1992) – dir. Clint Eastwood

I suppose I should have seen a number of Clint Eastwood’s directorial efforts by this point. It’s not that I haven’t wanted to; it’s just that it didn’t happen until now. Unforgiven is one of Eastwood’s most notable films, winning four Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor (Gene Hackman) and Best Film Editing (Joel Cox).

Armed with the kind of crusty resolve that could only have been supplied by this specific actor, Bill Munny (Eastwood) was once an emphatically despicable criminal, a guy not above killing women and children during bank-robbing sprees.

Thanks to some handy-dandy exposition at the beginning of the film, we know that Munny’s thievin’, murderin’ ways were turned around by his dear departed wife, who conveniently died a couple of years before the start of the film. (She also gifted him with two children.) Munny is so faithful to her memory that he has never even considered availing himself of the prostitutes in the nearby town of Big Whiskey. He also goes to the late Mrs. Munny’s grave to pay his respects before heading out on his final mission – he’s hired to help kill two thugs who cut up the face of a young prostitute from Big Whiskey.

With the help of old friend Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman), Munny heads out with his other partner, the Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett). I can appreciate the Days of Heaven-ish look in the cinematography by Jack N. Green.

The film tries its best to subvert the expectations of the typical Western. We’re supposed to root for Munny, who was once a bad guy, then became a good guy and is now sort of a bad guy again. Since it’s been eleven years since he gave up crime, it takes a while before he’s able to get back on a horse. He also doesn’t have any real love interest, unless you count this scene that shows he is sympathetic toward the damaged prostitute. I don’t mean to say that these are negative elements of the character. What I mean to say is that Eastwood’s performance is not particularly good. Maybe if he injected a little more humanity and tenderness into the character, he could have done something really great. (The Academy didn’t seem to mind. They gave him a Best Actor nomination anyway.)

I understand why Gene Hackman won his Oscar if the voters were especially impressed by the jailhouse scene between him and Morgan Freeman. That’s a legitimately terrific bit of acting right there. I wouldn’t say that this is Hackman’s best role of the 90s, though; that honor definitely goes to The Birdcage.

Richard Harris: this movie needed more of him. (How could the screenwriter, David Webb Peoples, craft such an excellent character name like “English Bob” and not mine it for all it could potentially be worth?) Saul Rubinek, on the other hand: what was the point of his character? You could take Rubinek out of the film and there would hardly be any change.

I can see why people like Unforgiven, but in my most humble of opinions, it’s overrated. I guess I just don’t care for Westerns unless they were made by John Ford or Howard Hawks. The Searchers and Red River are the go-to masterpieces for me. It’s obvious that Eastwood cares a great deal for the genre – the ending credits bear a dedication to Sergio Leone and Don Siegel, the two directors who catapulted Eastwood to film stardom – but Unforgiven does not have a solid enough screenplay to really succeed.

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