Unforgiven is a 1992 western directed by and starring Clint Eastwood, based on a screenplay written by David Webb Peoples. It was voted the best picture of 1992 by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and perhaps deservingly so. The film is a gritty realistic portrayal of the old west, pretty much the polar opposite of the western fantasies such as A Fistful of Dollars that Eastwood starred in earlier in his career. The film runs for two hours and eleven minutes and is available for home viewing on VHS and DVD formats.
William Munny (a notorious gunslinger played by Clint Eastwood) has settled down on a farm with his two children after the death of his wife. His animals are sick and times are very hard. One day he meets up with a boy (The Schofield Kid, played by Jaimz Woolvett) who tells him that there is five hundred dollars to be made by killing two cowboys who have committed a series of crimes, the most heinous of which is the murder of a prostitute. Munny reluctantly takes it on together with the Kid. Munny calls on his old partner, Ned (played by the always-watchable Morgan Freeman), who rides with him and The Schofield Kid. The trio go to the town which is watched over by an evil sheriff, Little Bill (who is played by Gene Hackman). The rest of the movie paints a picture of the good and evil in both primary characters, Little Bill and William Munny, over the backdrop of the old west.
It is the multi-layered characters in this film that really bring things home. Miles away from his generic "man with no name" that he played in the 1970s, Munny is portrayed as a painful, aging fighter who wrestles with his desire to honor his wife's memory (he gave up gunslinging for her) and his need to feed his children. The fact that he has to be drunk before he is an effective killer merely demonstrates the internal conflicts he has. Is he doing the right thing by returning to the killer that, he fears, is his true nature? The film revolves around this question.
At the same time, Little Bill (Hackman's character) is portrayed as a evil, violent man, prone to incredible swings in his character. The consecutive scenes in which he beats one of the bounty hunters, English Bob (played effectively by Richard Harris) almost to death and then, after barely wiping the dust from his sleeves, explains to a journalist how men like he and Munny are so successful at killing in a light, bantering style. What really drives him as a lawman, and is he really evil or is it just his hard methods?
The entire tone of the film is that of a deep character study set in the old west. Rather than over the top as spaghetti westerns often were, this film is very serious and gritty. Rather than a black and white line of good and evil, this picture is painted in a wide variety of greys. It is this, along with the acknowledgement of how much Eastwood had grown as an actor and creative person over the last two decades, that makes the film a true modern classic.
The film won four Oscars (best picture, Gene Hackman for best supporting actor, Clint Eastwood for best director, and best film editing) and was nominated for five more. In addition, it won the best director and best supporting actor awards at the Golden Globes and nominations in two more categories (including best picture, which it lost to Scent of a Woman). The film definitely deserved some recognition due to its unflinching portrayal of the old west, lacking the glory and shine of most other presentations who tend to glorify it.
The film is available for home viewing in VHS and DVD formats. The DVD presentation is lackluster and begs for a special edition of some sort. It does provide both a widescreen and full screen version of the film on the same disc, as well as a French audio track, but that is the limit of the special features. If you can find it in a bargain bin, it is worth picking up; otherwise, catch it on television.
This film should be remembered as a prime example of how it is truly the characters and how they are portrayed that carries a film. The overall plot here is quite simple; it is the characters that are complex and that is what makes this a winner.