Top Fifty Films of the 90s — Number Thirty-One


#31 — Unforgiven (Clint Eastwood, 1992)
Clint Eastwood never made another western after Unforgiven. That may not seem like a big deal. It’s hardly a studio staple any longer, with no more than a couple per year, a major difference from the numbers cranked out by old Hollywood studios, as evidenced by any casual perusal of a Turner Classic Movies monthly schedule. But it is significant for Eastwood, probably the modern actor most associated with the genre, from the television celebrity of Rawhide to his persona-defining work in Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns to the elegiac soberness of his own directorial efforts. It’s been nearly twenty years since Unforgiven. Before that, he’d never gone more than a decade between roles that required him to don a battered cowboy hat and spend significant time atop a mighty steed. I don’t recall if he indicated at the time that he’d effectively made his final statement on the genre or if it was simply understood. It could easily have been the former. That’s how clearly and decisively Unforgiven closes the dime novel cover on the cinematic mythologizing of the American Old West. If anything, it’s a wonder anyone has thought to make a western since.

Eastwood plays William Munny, a once-feared gunslinger who’s toiling in anonymity on his dusty patch of farmland. He straps on the holster anew to earn some money by tracking down and killing the incorrigible men who cut up the face of a prostitute in Big Whiskey, Wyoming. The script by David Webb Peoples sidesteps the typical path of such a story. It doesn’t reinvent it or twist it on its axis to become completely different. Instead it walks along beside it, observing it with fresh eyes. The time on the range includes big romantic landscapes, but it also inspires boredom and homesickness for men riding along for seemingly endless hours. Shoot-outs are sudden and brutal, leaving behind not clean, scattered bodies that signify victory, but men grasping their wounds, dying slowly and painfully, calling out for the mercy of a drink of water. Eastwood isn’t refuting the sort of movie violence that helped make him a star; it remains the only solution proffered by his character, right up to the film’s grim end. Instead, he’s lifting away the safe varnish that usually covers it in a big studio film. The repercussions of a bullet piercing flesh are on proper display. It’s doesn’t produce the bloodless collapse found in a John Ford western, or the exploding squibs of Sam Peckinpah’s kinetic version of the same. The result is a man in agony, dying in the desert sun.

Eastwood’s laconic style as a director is perfectly suited to the material. The film is unhurried and contemplative, fitting for the characters who populate it. They are not jolted and jostled by their acts of violence; they are haunted by them. The confusion and misgivings linger, a deep scratch upon their souls. Eastwood doesn’t suggest there’s a different way for these men to live. There are no convincing arguments for pacifism to be found in the film. He simply acknowledges, with profound gravity, that everyone involved–the victims and the perpetrators–pays a price.

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