It's a Given that Eastwood's Western is Unforgiving
"Unforgiven" is one of those movies where people like to look for subtext, the deeper meaning of it all. As such there are theories about it being a movie which takes a swipe at politics, a movie which subtext is about gun control, a movie where Clint Eastwood as producer, director and actor takes a swipe at Hollywood. Maybe there is some truth in it, maybe "Unforgiven" has layer upon layer of deeper meanings but for me it is Eastwood given us two things a look at the real west, not that of the westerns from a bygone era, and also his exploration of growing old, something which occurs more and more in the movies he has made since the 80s. But for me most importantly it is a movie which entertains in every way from storyline, action, drama and performances.
When Delilah (Anna Levine - The Crow) a whore in the town of Big Whisky is slashed and disfigured by an unhappy customer, her friends are forced to take matters into their own hands when the town's sheriff Little Bill (Gene Hackman - The Quick and the Dead) doesn't dish out satisfactory punishment. Offering a reward for the murder of the cowboys who disfigured Delilah, retired killer William Munny (Clint Eastwood - The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) decides to take on one last job as he struggles to go straight and provide a living for his children. Along with his best friend Ned (Morgan Freeman - Million Dollar Baby) they head to Big Whisky in hope of tracking down the cowboys but Sheriff Little Bill is serving out his own brand of justice, sadistically beating anyone who thinks they will claim the reward.
What for me is very evident is that "Unforgiven" attempts to paint a more realistic picture of the wild west rather than the clear cut versions that were delivered in westerns from the bygone era. It means that whilst there is plenty about "Unforgiven" which feels familiar, the brutal killer trying to keep on the straight, the Sheriff who up holds the law, the saloon and the whore house it is a different picture that Eastwood paints. He muddies the waters so that whilst the sheriff upholds the law he's not a completely decent man, he's got a cruel streak, an almost enjoyment when it comes to lashing out justice but only on those who feels like. At the same time he makes us empathise with William a man who admits to his despicable, murderous past yet is trying to raise his children in an honest way. This approach, this display of opposites to what westerns were once about makes "Unforgiven" far more interesting.
At the same time Eastwood doesn't hide away from the brutal side of things either, in an early scene we watch a whore basically being slashed across her face and body for no real reason. It's disturbing and that is what Eastwood wants to achieve and he does it through out with the realism when it comes to the action and the killing. He doesn't try to dumb down the reality of how brutal murder is yet at the same time he still manages to make the action exciting.
The level of shock continues with the dialogue and Eastwood doesn't pull any punches when it comes to the rawness of the dialogue. It is often at times as shocking as the violence but it doesn't feel like it's out of place. "Unforgiven" is a very real western and hearing men frankly discussing women and masturbation doesn't feel wrong at all.
But at the same time Eastwood seems to use "Unforgiven" to explore what has become a theme in his movies and that is growing old. There is almost a humorous side to the movie as we watch William struggling to shoot like he once did, mount a horse like he could and generally feel and look like age has taken the best out of him. It's also humorous in its honest when William falls from his horse whilst being shot at, instead of being scraped by a bullet he says he knocked himself falling. It is this side of "Unforgiven", this honesty, this stripping away of anything which glorifies the life of a cowboy which makes the movie so entertaining and interesting.
All of which makes "Unforgiven" a far more real movie, and all the sub plots, the storyline surrounding English Bob, William getting a fever and so on feel like Eastwood is taking to bits the myth that old westerns created and in place of that delivering a more realistic, gritty version. And at the same time he broaches the subject of killing as William frequently mentions those he has murdered in his past, not in a sense of nostalgia but more of a man haunted by death. Maybe Eastwood is trying to make some sort of statement about the way Hollywood has glorified murder but even if he isn't he makes you think.
And it has to be said that not only does Eastwood do a great job of producing and directing "Unforgiven" but also acting in the central role of William Munny. Here is Eastwood playing another tough guy character but one who has become more vulnerable with age, not as sharp as he once was and battling the memories which haunt him. It's a brilliant performance because not only do we warm to this old killer but we side with him despite basically going on one final job to kill for money.
Eastwood's is not the only good performance in "Unforgiven" as there are solid performances from Gene Hackman as Sheriff Little Bill and Morgan Freeman as Ned Logan as well as a beautiful portrayal of vulnerability from Anna Levine as Delilah the whore who is disfigured. In fact there is not a single performance which feels wrong and you have to say the subplot surrounding English Bob is brilliantly acted out by Richard Harris.
What this all boils down to is that "Unforgiven" is a great modern western. It manages to take many of the old cliches which built the western genre and gives them a new slant, a more real angle. And that is where "Unforgiven" is at its best as it paints a more realistic and brutal picture of the West and the characters which filled it. Whether or not Eastwood was trying to take a swipe at various politics is here nor there because "Unforgiven" is pure entertainment first and foremost.