Whenever the word “Western” pops up the first person that comes to my mind is Clint Eastwood. As an actor he’s center stage in several of my favorite Westerns and as a director understands the genre like no other director. Ever since his first directed western, Eastwood showed an interest in the duality of the hero, taking a special interest in the archetype of hero portrayed in the classic 1953 Western, “Shane”. Eastwood has explored this theme in many ways in the past: first as a true antihero (“High Plains Drifter”), then as a man becoming legend (“The Outlaw Josey Wales”) and later as a true mythic hero (“Pale Rider”); all this culminates in “Unforgiven” as the ultimate demythologization of the concept, and his final ode to the Western genre.
Unforgiven follows retired old west gunslinger William Munny reluctantly taking on one last job, with the help of his old partner and a young man. It’s a film about the manipulating influence of legends as much it is a dissection on the western genre position on violence. Built on a hollow facade of the western genre it removal of any heroes and villains slowly envelops the film. Broadening the depiction of the wild west eliminating the charming hero, the righteous sheriff, the violent outlaws, elaborate shootouts, climatic stands off, and the helpless everyday person caught in the middle in life in the old west. Becoming more thoughtful in showing every step of a character motivation by an outside force to an internal decision. Internalizing the classic Western theme in which violent men are “civilized” by schoolmarms, preachers and judges. It is in the use of violence as the main theme of the story that such varied views are made possible. Munny is escaping from his past’s violence while the Kid is eagerly awaiting the next chance to prove his masculinity by the use of violence. The duality between man and myth is explored not only via the relationship between the Kid and Munny, but also in the shape of a character who writes novels about the wild west, and sees the figure of the gunslinger as an idolized modern hero. Reality constantly collides with legend with many characters and their relationships exhaustively explored, resulting in a character driven revisionism of the western.
Clint Eastwood as a director reflects a passing era in its genre even in its visual style. The set design and cinematography provide viewers with visual cues they will be conversant with a genre whose conventions are deeply rooted in American cinema. The dusty, barren streets and ramshackle buildings are necessary to impart a sense of familiarity that the storyline takes pains to deconstruct. Our first views of Big Whiskey establish a set of expectations, reinforced by the way the town has been erected and the way the early scenes are shot, that are necessary for “Unforgiven” approach to have its full impact. Many of the film’s exteriors are widescreen compositions showing the vastness of the land. The daytime interiors, on the other hand, are always strongly backlit, the bright sun pouring in through windows so that the figures inside are dark and sometimes hard to see. Living indoors in a civilized style has made these people distinct.
As William Munny, Clint Eastwood is simply perfect in what at first sight looks like an extension of his earlier “Man with no name” persona. William Munny has a name, and a past he wants to escape from, and Eastwood captures the image of guilt and regret to the letter. But his voice lacks conviction, and we sense unfinished business in the air displaying the uncertainty of Eastwood to stick by his guns. Eastwood personifies the weariness of a man of violence who’s trying to fight against his nature. A lot of the conflict is internal, but we catch enough glimpses of it to know it’s going on. We also see the point at which the surrender of the new man to the old one occurs. In other words Eastwood has visually and through his portrayal created one of the most sophisticated westerns. Morgan Freeman plays the wise old friend role which he perfected. Gene Hackman does an excellent job bringing out the good and the bad in Little Bill, refusing to allow the character to become a one-dimensional antagonist. His standout scene is the one in which he instructs Beauchamp about the real Old West.
Unforgiven is another classic western by one of the master of genre himself Clint Eastwood. Deconstructing the western with shades of grey and thoughtful statement on its genre violence. Bolstered by strong performances from an great assemble cast create individuals that aren’t simply black and white. Showing far more depths in the characters in their delivery. It’s in the same vein as “Seven Samurai” tackling it’s respective genre with a depiction that challenges characters, it’s environments, morals, and realistically deconstruct many norms of it genre. It’s not just great filmmaking, but an essential work of art.