Tuesday, March 17, 2015

AFI Top 100: #68 "Unforgiven"

Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven (1992)

Coming at you a bit late, overdue from last week due to some weekend travel (and lack of internet!) Two Sundays past, we gathered a group of good friends for some good BBQ to watch a pretty darn good western. I can't believe how far we've gotten on this AFI Top 100 list, hitting #68: Unforgiven, actor-turned-director (and always tough guy) Clint Eastwood's first major award-winning film. Yes, yes, I know what you're thinking... he made a dozen or so pictures before this, but honestly, this is really the one that set him apart. One of only three westerns to win the Oscar for Best Picture, Eastwood took a chance on this script, written by David Webb Peoples (best known for action/sci-fi), about retribution and redemption in the Old West.

Our story begins with an inciting incident. In the Wyoming town of Big Whisky, the law is beginning to drown out the lawlessness of the surrounding land. That is until one night, a prostitute in the local brothel is badly cut up by two rowdy cowboys. Dissatisfied with how the Sheriff, Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman), chooses to punish the brutesthey're asked to hand over a couple of horses... lose property for, you know, damaging "property"the mother hen of the whorehouse, Strawberry Alice (Frances Fisher), puts out a bounty on their heads: $1000 to whomever shoots them down.

Cut to the Kansas countryside, where retired outlaw and widower, Bill Munny (Eastwood), is doing his best to raise two young children, as far from his old life as possible. News of the bounty reaches him however, when wannabe-outlaw, The 'Schofield Kid' (Jaimz Woolvett), knocks on Munny's door. Compelled by the prospect of no longer living in squalor, Munny agrees to join up with the Kid, so long as he can bring along his old partner, Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman). Together, they travel to Big Whisky not only to find justice for the women of that town—but also to discover whether they are the blood-thirsty men they once were.

This is Clint Eastwood's most understated film as a director. Perhaps that's why it's his best. I've always had a personal problem with the films he's directed, especially those in the last 15 years. The execution is always of the highest quality, but the stories just seem to devolve towards the end of each film, counter-acting everything he'd built before it (Million Dollar Baby, Changeling, and Gran Torino come to mindeven last year's American Sniper had this "end of movie" hiccup). But not here. In fact, the slow build and climactic resolution of Unforgiven is what makes it truly great. The shocking aspect comes right in the beginning, setting the stage for a tale of justice and retribution that the story actually earns.

In many ways, this is a classic western to the point of cliche—that High Noon-esque township, the stock townspeople, the corrupt Sheriff, the gun-toting outlaw... But in more subtle ways, it's completely different. There is a self-awareness to Unforgiven, granted it by the fact that it's had time to reconstruct the genre—and romanticize it. Those romantic ideals are evident in characters like the Schofield Kid, or even the plump writer, W.W. Beauchamp (Saul Rubinek), who swings into town with infamous gunfighter, English Bob (Richard Harris), but proceeds to hop from outlaw to outlaw with starstruck desperation when the others' stories out-impress the ones before it. By the 1990's, the western genre had reached the point where outlaw groupies are actually written into the plot of the film.

Beauchamp and the Kid might be on opposite sides of the law, but they're more similar to each other than they are to the icons of the Old [dying] West, like Munny or Little Bill. Unforgiven provides the cinematic scope of the westerns that we love, while still incorporating an almost "meta" approach to its characters. Munny is a conundrum, even to himself. His formal brutality is held at bay by a strict set of self-imposed rules, which begin to slowly dissolve the moment he leaves his Kansas ranch. The excitement of the shootout, the fervent desire for the touch of a woman, and the devil-may-care attitude towards a drunken brawl... all of that lives with everyone else, but not Munny. At least, not if he can help it.

The film would edge on boring if it weren't for the fact that you know, eventually, Munny will crack. His attempts to stay clean will buckle under the weight of his need for vengeance, just as Little Bill's veil as a reformed, just lawman will be lifted by his own hatred and blood lust. And when the turn happens for each of them, it is truly an incredible climax.

I expected to dislike this movie the way that I did when I first saw it 15 years ago. I remembered it being unbalanced, and more (unnecessarily) brutal than it really was. I realize now that the "unbalance" I felt was in fact a slow build, one that most filmmakers are too afraid to commit to nowadays. Honestly, even Clint Eastwood as a director has never recaptured the restrained greatness he achieved with Unforgiven and it's delicate, oh-so-satisfying resolution.

The western is a rich genre, one of my favorites, even though I can be so critical of it. This isn't the last of the Old West we'll see on this list, but it may just be one of the best.

Rating:  ★★★ / 5 stars

[Watch the Trailer] | [Read More AFI Top 100 Reviews] | [images © Warner Brothers]

Check back later this week for #67 on the list, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? — or better yet, have your own viewing party and watch along with us!

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