Friday, January 30, 2015

Unforgiven (Best Picture 1992)

Unforgiven begins with something like an epilogue. We learn that the outlaw William Munny's wife was a God-fearing Christian woman but has died, leaving him alone with their two children. Munny was supposedly a notorious gun-slinger, and his wife's mother did not understand what her daughter saw in him.

Two years later, we are in a bordello in the small town of Big Whiskey, Wyoming. A horseman has started cutting up a prostitute's face for laughing at his small penis. The man's friend can't stop him, but eventually both men are grabbed and held for the sheriff. The prostitute's beautiful face is scarred forever, and the barkeep complains to the sheriff that she is now "tainted." So the sheriff tells the cowboy and his friend to supply horses to the barkeep/pimp to compensate him on *his* financial loss. In a scene that is painful to watch, Gene Hackman as the sheriff totally ignores the suffering of the woman. He does not demand anything in reparations for her injury or imposing any punishment on the men whatsoever on her behalf. The prostitutes are so angry that later they get together, pool their savings, and offer a reward for the death of the two men.

This reward is what drives the rest of the film. Talk of the butchery of the woman, exaggerated until she has been sliced into pieces, makes the rounds of the cowboy trail going around and through Wyoming. Eventually the men of Big Whiskey also hear that the women have set out a reward, and they are upset that gunslingers may come to town to try to collect.

And come they do. The first to arrive is Richard Harris as "English Bob," aka The Duke of Death. Harris portrays a classical "legend of the West" who is travelling with his own biographer. The sheriff knows him, however, and arrests him for not following the town ordinance prohibiting the possession of fire-arms. He also beats him senseless. Later, in a long, drawn out and tense scene the sheriff explains to the journalist how the Duke (who he dismissively calls "the Duck") actually (accidentally) killed one of his famous conquests. Director Clint Eastwood films this scene from inside the Duke's jail cell, from outside of it, and from around it. It is expertly staged.

Symbolically, Harris is put on the train leaving  town just as Clint Eastwood and his comrades ride in.

The Schofield Kid had arrived at Munny's dilapidated home, alerting him of the reward and the murder he thinks the two men have gotten away with. Clint Eastwood as Munny is not interested. He says it is because he is a changed man, but also because he has to take care of his two young children. However,  after The Kid leaves and he mulls over the situation, he realizes how much he could use the reward money. So he takes out after The Kid, stopping to pick up his old friend, Ned, played by Morgan Freeman. They catch up to The Kid, and then realize that he is so near-sighted that he can't see to use a rifle. Along the way Munny repeats over and over again that he is a changed man due to the influence of his dear, departed wife. He refuses to drink, and when the men talk about sex, he says that he does not frequent the bordellos, either. In another well directed scene, the men sit around the fire and their conversation is filmed "round robin" style. It looks seamless. I don't know if it was all in one take, or if the editing was excellent, but I did notice the craftsmanship of the filming.

So the men arrive in town on a rainy night. Munny doesn't want to "parlay" with the women, so he is downstairs in the bar when the sheriff arrives. Munny is ignorant of the law against fire-arms, so is beaten badly by the sheriff and his posse. Somehow he is able to get on his horse and leaves town, meeting up with Ned and The Kid, who had escaped. In another painful scene, Ned sews Munny's face by candle-light. He has a fever and sleeps for several days. During this time Ned and The Kid meet with the prostitutes and get intelligence on the two targets. They also have sex with the women, "getting advances on the reward." The scarred prostitute visits the recuperating Eastwood once, and they have a tender exchange about sex, commitment, and justice.

Finally Munny is healthy enough to move, and they go after the two cowboys. In one more painful scene, they wound Davy, the younger man who didn't actually do any of the cutting. Eventually, he dies. Ned is disgusted by the murder, so quits. However, on his way out of town he is caught by the dead man's companions and brought to the sheriff. Gene Hackman, with an incredibly evil grin, tortures Ned to death. Meanwhile, ignorant of Ned's fate, The Kid and Munny  camp out at the horse ranch until they find the second man. Eventually they shoot him to death while he is using the out-house.

When Munny learns that Ned has been captured and killed, he suddenly begins drinking again. The Kid, also disgusted by the shootings, quits. Munny, however, goes back to town to confront the men. He first kills the bartender for not burying Ned, then he shoots the sheriff for killing him in the first place. "It's not fair!" cries the sheriff. "Fairness has nothing to do with it," Munny replies, blowing his head off.

In the actual epilogue, William Munny has moved on, and nobody knows what ever became of him or his family.

The first time I saw this film I did not appreciate how good it was. The second time I saw it I appreciated its depth and symbolism. For example, the title. Who or what is "unforgiven"? You could argue that it refers to Clint Eastwood and his men. However, in a very real sense it describes everyone in the film. The men who attack the prostitute are not forgiven by the women; even Davy, who has nothing to do with the actual attack and wanted to give the woman a horse as remuneration, is not forgiven. The women themselves are considered "debased" by the sheriff and later are angrily denounced by the town's men-folk for "bringing all this trouble to town." Richard Harris as the dandy gunslinger is held in ridicule by the sheriff for exaggerating his stories into legends. And the sheriff and his men, who should be the upholders of justice, are not forgiven by the women or by Clint Eastwood for allowing the women to be mistreated or for killing Ned. Really, Munny, Ned, and The Kid are the most innocent of the characters, as they are in town to kill two men who they sincerely believe deserve execution.

As mentioned above, the craftsmanship of the film is undeniable. It begins and end with shots of the Munny farm, silhouetted against the sunrise (or is it a sunset?).  The town of Big Whiskey is surrounded by beautiful mountain scenery, but is really just a muddy, ugly, evil town.

The story is also fantastic, and I am not surprised that screen-writer David Webb Peoples was nominated for Best Screenplay (he lost to Neil Jordan of The Crying Game.) No one in the film is all that they appear to be. Communication and human connections are missed, both symbolically (The Kid's near-sightedness, Richard Harris getting on the train as Clint Eastwood rides in) and also actually (the prostitute and Munny mis-communicating about loyalty and love, the whole episode with The Duke's fictional adventures and the sheriff's anger about them). The film is full of great scenes, but one of the best is at the end when Clint Eastwood is killing the men in the town. Saul Rubinek plays the biographer slash journalist WW Beauchamp. He has been regaled with stories by both Richard Harris and Gene Hackman. Finally, he has seen adventure with his own eyes. He is almost shot by Clint Eastwood, but after he survives the encounter you just know he is going to write another pulp novel, this one about William Munny.

With its win, Unforgiven became only the third Western to win Best Picture. None won for nearly 60 years after Cimarron did it in 1931; then Unforgiven became the second in two years after Dances With Wolves won in 1990. If you like your drama slow-boiling and atmospheric, you should see Unforgiven. 

*Academy Award Best Picture of 1992*
Produced & Directed by Clint Eastwood
Screenplay by David Webb Peoples

This trailer does the film justice. Nice job, Warner Bros! 

Also Nominated:
(in alphabetical order)
The Crying Game
A Few Good Men
Howard's End
Scent Of A Woman
For a change, I have actually seen all of these nominees. The Crying Game is the ground-breaking film starring Stephen Rhea, Forrest Whitaker, and Jaye Davidson in a story about Irish Republican Army activities and, oh yeah, gender roles. A Few Good Men is an excellent court-room drama by the same man responsible for television's The West Wing, Aaron Sorkin. Directed by Rob Reiner, it stars Jack Nicholson, Tom Cruise, and Demi Moore. If you have never seen it, you should see it. Howard's End is another period piece set in turn-of-the-century England, based on a novel by E.M. Forster. Emma Thompson won Best Actress for her role. And Scent Of A Woman is a melodrama about a blind Viet Nam veteran who wants a little bit of fun in New York City. Al Pacino won Best Actor for his role. A very young Philip Seymour Hoffman plays one of the wealthy brats he encounters.

1 comment:

  1. Sounds crude. Glad I didn't see it.

    (Thanks for the review though.)