I know I may get some flack from the denizens of Clint Eastwood apologists, but I feel his one film that brought him to the status of greatness as a director was mediocre at best. I find most of Eastwood's directorial works as all over the board when quality is the standard. Some of them are okay (The Bridges of Madison County, Absolute Power, White Hunter Black Heart), some are great (Million Dollar Baby, Mystic River, A Perfect World) and some are just god awful (Space Cowboys, Heartbreak Ridge, The Rookie).
Unforgiven is one of those films that I mildly enjoy; however this film garnered some of the most critical and commercial praise for Eastwood as an actor and director. When discussing film with friends a lot of them consider Unforgiven as the best western ever. Granted the bar is low given that the genre is mostly made of corny, pretentious, or just plain dull movies, but does it rank with movies such as High Noon and The Big Country?
The movie has an interesting premise. An aging gunfighter (Eastwood) who is failing at the straight life of raising two children find an opportunity to make some money for his struggling farm by the way of collecting on a bounty. He leaves his kids and recruits a former colleague (Morgan Freeman) to hunt a man who cut up a prostitute.
A tyrannical lawman (Gene Hackman), who presides over the town where the prostitute was attacked, uses draconian tactics in keeping what he considers scum out of his precious neighborhood. The sheriff is none too happy about the bounty nor is he content to allow anyone come and collect it.
Clint Eastwood and Morgan Freeman take a long journey while discussing issues such as aging, the old gun fighters life vs. the normal life, and masturbation. Upon their trek they meet a young man who has dreams of collecting the bounty himself and becomes a reluctant third wheel in the hunt.
The acting in this film is amazing. For that alone I would recommend sitting through the long, pretentious, and often times dull film. After sitting through what seems like an eternity of build up the viewer is presented with one of the most implausible western gunfights I've ever seen. Unforgiven also takes the safe route in not portraying any racial tensions with Morgan Freeman and his enemies. For a film that strips down the black and white morality of previous westerns to a muddled gray it seemed a little strange to think that post civil war frontier as racially harmonious. All throughout the movie you are constantly reminded that the myth of the old west was nothing more than romanticized storytelling, and that the reality was brutal and often times unjust. Any reasonably intelligent person would already know this and if they didn't they should understand the point within the first 10 minutes of the movie. Despite all but saying it directly in the first act the movie goer is constantly reminded of the amorality of the gunfighter era.
When the film was released critics hailed it as the greatest westerns ever and applauded Eastwood's stoic performance of the geriatric gunfighter. I guess they thought Clint playing a cowboy was a real stretch. Unforgiven took the Best Picture Oscar as the pool was pretty shallow with nominees including The Crying Game, A Few Good Men, Howard's End, and Scent of a Woman. As all of the films I call overrated Unforgiven isn't a bad one, but it's not great.
Scene from Unforgiven:
"It's the portrait of a hero past his prime, the lone outlaw humbled by age. It's this self-referential aspect of Eastwood playing against his own myth, I think, that has created the illusion of depth for some critics, and Eastwood is intentionally and perhaps apologetically asking us to reexamine along with him the hero he created. But instead of actually exploring the character psychologically, Eastwood chooses to lay a veneer of political correctness over him." - Hal Hinson