Unforgiven (review)

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A View to a Kill

“It’s a hell of a thing, killin’ a man,” says thief and killer William Munny (Clint Eastwood, who also directed) in Unforgiven. “You take away all he’s got and all he’s ever gonna have.” Practically an antimovie, this revisionist Western rejects the concept of casual murder that many films revel in to examine why “it ain’t so easy to shoot a man.”

By 1880, Will is a poor pig farmer, a widower with two young children and long retired from his former life of crime (“my wife… cured me of drink and wickedness”). But the lure of money draws Will back into the fray. When a prostitute in the town of Big Whiskey has her face horribly slashed by a customer, and the town’s sheriff, Little Bill (Gene Hackman), lets the guy off easy, the other women in the brothel scrape together $1,000 to put up as a reward for anyone who kills the attacker. Will and his former partner, Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman), strike up a reluctant partnership with the young Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett) to claim the reward.

Will, once “one crazy sumbitch,” according to Ned, insists he “ain’t like that no more,” repeating it as if he’s trying to convince himself. Ned has doubts about killing for money, though he’s done it in the past. The Schofield Kid is all bluster and bravado, but we don’t believe his boasts about all the men he’s killed. Each of them will find challenged his ideas about what he is — and isn’t — capable of.

Little Bill, ostensibly the voice of justice, is possibly the nastiest, most brutish character of them all, shooting strangers in town with little provocation and inflicting whippings as punishments for minor infractions. But he does dispel the fastest-gun-in-the-west myth when he explains to the writer Beauchamp (Saul Rubinek) — the biographer of another killer in town looking to claim the reward — that being quick is not as good as being coolheaded, which he demonstrates again and again with his cold-blooded behavior.

Unforgiven offers us none of the grandeur of the old West we’ve seen in countless movies before. Nobody dies quickly or easily but messily, screaming and crying. There are no happy hookers, no lighthearted poker games, and no white hats — there are only drunks killing one another in never-ending cycles of revenge. Searing and somber, Unforgiven shatters every myth of the Wild West that Hollywood has ever thrown at us, and does it will an unmistakable ring of truth.

Oscars Best Picture 1992
AFI 100 (1998 list): #98

unforgettable movie moment:
Little Bill, handing a gun to the meek Beauchamp, tries to taunt the writer into shooting him, demonstrating how difficult it is, psychologically, to pull the trigger.

previous Best Picture:
1991: The Silence of the Lambs
next Best Picture:
1993: Schindler’s List

previous AFI 100 film:
97: Bringing Up Baby
next AFI 100 film:
99: Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner

go> the complete list of Oscar-winning Best Pictures

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