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Viewing Unforgiven for the AFI Project

What's the AFI project, you ask? For more information, or if you just enjoy my bemused ramblings, read here http://pippin2010.filmaster.com/review/revisiting-psycho-for-the-afi-project/?preview

Unforgiven is on the following AFI lists:

The Original Top 100 (#98)
The Revised Top 100 (#68)
10 Top 10's (#4 Western)

I looked forward to viewing Unforgiven for this project for several reasons: it won a few Oscars, including Best Picture; it was heralded to be an atypical Western (and since Westerns are my least favorite genre, as you might know, I welcome anything atypical in that department); and it was directed by Clint Eastwood. I have only seen two of Mr. Eastwood's directed films, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and Mystic River, and while I can't call either film anything like "favorites," I respect his style. I wondered what the understated man, with his understated approach to performance and direction, might do with the genre that made him famous as an actor. Plus, Unforgiven features Morgan Freeman and Gene Hackman, so there was something of a guarantee that the film would be decent. Was it great, though, and worth AFI ranking?

In Unforgiven, residing in Big Whiskey, Wyoming, is a group of prostitutes holed up in the local saloon, who offer a $1,000 reward to anyone who can kill two cowboys, one of whom disfigured one of their own. This incident upsets Little Bill Daggett (Hackman), the town's sheriff, who wields the authority of his office menacingly, aiming to keep assassins and their related weaponry out of his town (though he and his deputies are exempt from the rule). The news of this ransom spreads far and wide. In nearby Kansas, the Schofield Kid, a young upstart, fixes to hire William Munny (Eastwood), a man with a checkered past. His reputation for being a thief and cold-blooded killer follows him to his quiet pig farm, where he is raising two children as a widower. Loathe to retread the misdeeds of his past, but in need of the funds as a single father with sick livestock, Munny, who initially refuses the offer of hire, sets off to catch up to the Kid and enlists the help of his friend and former partner Ned Logan (Freeman), a gunfighter in his own right. What complicates matters, however, is that cowboys who show up to claim the reward, such as English Bob (Richard Harris, Sir) and his biographer, W. W. Beauchamp (Saul Rubinek), are bullied and beaten by Little Bill and his motley band of lawmen so as to make an example out of them. In addition, Munny has his own doubts about being able to resurrect the part of himself that allows him to kill in this manner, even as the prostitutes seek justice when the sheriff offers them none, and the offending cowboys walk free without consequences.

Unforgiven, like Eastwood's other films, unfolds slowly and deliberately, each frame carefully cultivating the frames to follow, each shot heavy with purpose. Eastwood, unlike some of his younger, less seasoned contemporaries, is methodical in his approach, almost to a fault. The pacing of this anti-Western, what some call a "revisionist" Western because of the fact that the hero is a villain, while the villain, an officer of the law, would otherwise be a hero, is even and measured, as if to allow the viewer ample time to feel the simmering undercurrent of what is unfolding.

That undercurrents rest with Munny, a quiet man and a man who wants to bother no one and wants no one to bother him. Through a combination of free will and fate, without a decisive meditation on which is the likelier impetus, Munny finds himself confronting his past and meeting a future that he did not want but cannot escape. Between Eastwood's performance, for which he was nominated for an Oscar (but did not win, and aptly so, since he's played this type of character so frequently), and his systematic approach to storytelling, his character's subtly existential plight is what engages the viewer. The pacing of the film might be a little too slow; at times, it seems to drag on, particularly when Eastwood is attempting to carry a scene almost by himself, such as when Munny is recovering from a fever and injuries sustained from Little Bill's men beating him to a ragged pulp, but it never falters and ultimately serves its purpose, even if it does so without a certain level of urgency. The character of Munny is like a festering volcano, lain dormant for decades but never without boiling lava just beneath its outer surfaces.

The performances of the veteran actors in this film are all superb, particularly Hackman, who plays his sheriff with a hint of sociopath that effectively helps to diminish all sympathy and respect for his charge of protecting his town. The most enjoyable scenes, though, belonged to Eastwood and Freeman; they provided an easy chemistry that suspends all disbelief and increases the credibility of the story. Freeman's Ned is not a stretch for the expert performer, but he is perfectly cast as Munny's best friend, foil, and conscience.

Some of the supporting performances, however, left something to be desired. The actor who played the Kid, though he was clearly allowed to aim for annoyingly pompous, unrestrained, and immature, could probably have been reeled in a touch. Sir Richard Harris was a delight as English Bob to an extent, and it was sort of tragic that he did not have more to work with. The performances of the more minor roles simply did not hold a candle to the performances of their veteran costars.

Unforgiven is an interesting morality play, though. The richness of the story speaks to the "grayness" of life; how, perhaps, there cannot be any absolute good and evil, and that all men have an inkling of both in their makeup. Eastwood easily pinpointed that theme and kneaded and unfolded his tale around it. The cinematography and other production elements were also very good, given the long, slow landscape shots and great uses of natural light. I would venture to say that Unforgiven is an excellent western; though defined by its genre, it breaks the formula - skewers it, in fact, in favor of a tale that demands for the viewer to question his/her sympathies for the characters being portrayed. To that end, I think it is a great American film, because it takes what is truly an American genre and gives it a makeover rife with ingenuity and grace. I liked it better than The Searchers, anyway, and about as much as High Noon, the top two westerns of the Top 10 in that genre. As in the latter film, the hero in Unforgiven is more complicated than the cowboy who rides toward his death in the name of honor, courage, and sacrifice, like a modern day knight.

In the end, as a result, I find myself rating Unforgiven an 8 on the patented ratings scale for being very good but having minor flaws. It's still a western, after all, and truly moves quite slowly. Yet, it's a strong film and is now my favorite Clint Eastwood film that he has directed that I have seen. Still, it does not pass the test. It's still a western, after all. I think I said that. In any event, Unforgiven recommendable to anyone who does like westerns because it's different from the norm - and different really can be good if not great.

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