Director – Clint Eastwood
Starring Clint Eastwood, Gene Hackman and Morgan Freeman, Unforgiven is possibly the ideal candidate for a retrospective because the film itself is a re-assessment of western mythology and something of a protest against its contemporaries.
Mainstream film of the 1990’s saw the ascendance of two extremes; graphic violence and political correctness. The first, often in the service of realism, combined with the latter to produce moralistic and easily digested stories which looked “real” and tugged at the heartstrings, but avoided the complexities of history and culture. The western genre in particularly has long had a penchant for historical romanticism in the service of moral simplicity, but Unforgiven intentionally muddies those waters. Despite ample opportunity it avoids extreme violence, but more importantly, virtually all of its characters are morally ambiguous.
The film pits Will (Eastwood) a reformed gunfighter now sober and raising pigs, against Little Bill (Hackman) another retired gunslinger turned small town Sherriff. Neither of them is entirely comfortable in their newfound roles and the film explores the complex mix of guilt and pride that leads each man to act in completely different ways. In generic terms, it is still very much a man-movie (the female characters lack depth), but the stakes are significantly less concrete than usual.
There is much symbolism in the film, from Wills’ pigs’ “fever,” to Little Bills’ leaky hand-built house, all of which push back against any simple reading of Unforgiven. Even the title begs the question, “whom,” for contrary to what other Oscar winning films of that decade may have implied, there are no easy answers.
(This review was used as a pitch to a local newspaper for a film review column concerned with independent movie houses and theaters like The Grand Illusion Cinema and Northwest Film Forum)