by John Linton Roberson
I despise macho crap. Apart from THE SEARCHERS, for instance--and in that film he's an obsessive, racist, and unlikable bastard, pretty accurate--I hate John Wayne. I loathe anything propounding action without thought. And that is why I have always liked Clint Eastwood's westerns, because for me he redeems a genre which can be done well, often hasn't been, but
is so very good when it is.The western has been used to propel and debunk as many myths as have been invented about America. The west, symbolizing the new, the unknown, the escape, is a perfect mental state upon which Americans enact these cultural allegories, which are most often hideous and vile but are sometimes sublime. The best westerns are the ones that use the realities of the west as the mileu. Which is the only way to reveal anything about the American character, if there is such a thing, in the genre. Because the west was where the basic poles of savagery and decency, and everything in between, were established as a spirit independent from British or European culture. It is significant that the one British character who shows his face in this film gets humiliated and thrown out of town.
"Eastwood For Those Who Don't Like Eastwood: The Ultimate Western"
The best westerns are therefore complex, lyrical, shocking, revelatory, accurate as far as can be managed, warm, tragic, and funny. A short list of some of the films(besides this) that in my opinion epitomize what I mean: LITTLE BIG MAN(nearly the best ever); THE GOOD, THE BAD, & THE UGLY; THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN(the one and only good performance from Charles Bronson, among other amazements); THE WILD BUNCH; BUTCH CASSIDY & THE SUNDANCE KID; JEREMIAH JOHNSON; THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES; HEAVEN'S GATE(yes, that; I think it's good and about the only one to address the part immigrants and robber barons played in the West); and DEAD MAN.
You notice how one star keeps coming up?
Eastwood's characters are always about the same, true; he's a star, not an actor(and a hell of a director). He plays Clint Eastwood, as Marion Morrison played John Wayne, in Garth Ennis' sharp observation. The Man With No Name. A cynical, somewhat black-humored anti-hero with only the most basic sense of honor, which only rarely won over his sense of self-preservation. And he always survived, because the only way TO survive was to be a mean, mercenary bastard whose heart was slowly being rotted away. The best westerns deal with the domestication of the west and the irrelevance of the ones who founded it to the new order. The gunfighters either join the law, become security, or get hunted down and killed. Or they quit and just get old and boring.
Eastwood's character here, William Munny, is roughly equivalent to Woody Allen's recent, and equally brilliant character Harry Block, in that it represents a consolidation, re-evaluation, and critique of the persona either star has put forth for years, with charm removed and the ugly or just more disturbing parts concentrated upon, the parts the charm made you miss. It shows you the hollowness inside thoase icons.
In the film, William Munny was once the most feared gunfighter--well, assassin--in the west, who "killed women and children, and just about everything that walked or crawled one time or another." which he readily and guiltily admits throughout the movie. He was mean, abused animals and women, and drank horribly; and could only shoot someone when he was drunk; when sober he didn't have the nerve nor, therefore, the aim. He met a woman who married him, had his children, but died later of sickness.
She reformed him of his killing and his drinking; now he's a broken recovering alcoholic failing to tend a pig farm in the middle of fucking nowhere, with two children he's getting too poor to raise. He has nightmares about the people he killed and doesn't ever want to do that again.
Then he really needs a lot of money, and the opportunity to kill someone who really deserves it(a cowboy, as it happens, for having cut up the face of a prostitute for giggling at his tiny member). He has to. He goes. He does. And worse. I don't want to ruin it if you haven't seen it.
Eastwood has never let himself look as weak, scared, and vulnerable as in this film. He falls off his horse, misses when he shoots(till the end of the film), wakes up screaming and crying, and is afraid to fight. He takes the entire film dissecting his screen persona and making it laughable, till near the end when it comes back literally with a vengeance, and scarier than ever and stronger for having been broken. The last 30 minutes of UNFORGIVEN are among the scariest moments you'll ever see in an American film of any genre.
This film is the ultimate western in the way Kubrick's 2001 is definitely the ultimate, elemental science fiction film or LAWRENCE OF ARABIA is the ultimate historical bio-epic. It takes the elements of the genre, soaks them in reality, and puts them back together in better order than they'd ever been before.
Along the way we get one more in about, what, a million excellent performances from Gene Hackman, as the former gunfighter turned bullying sheriff who kicks the living shit out of anyone coming in to collect the reward, and debunks myth after myth about gunfighting and the west with a snickering sneer that's a delight to watch.
One of those whom he kicks the shit out of is Richard Harris, doing, frankly, the only really good performance I've ever seen from him, playing the previously mentioned Englander, English Bob, who takes delight in making cruel jokes about the president's assassination and other American wounds on Independence Day.
Saul Rubinek, who is hilarious, plays one of those who created the myth of the Wild West, a trash writer who follows Bob around and writes ludicrously lurid adventures without a word of truth in them, supposedly based on Bob's exploits, for consumption by readers back East. Thus were the misconceptions which the western has been so very guilty of perpetuating born.
A strange thing I've noticed whenever I've shown this film to people who don't like westerns, which are most of my friends. They watch this engrossed, express utter surprise afterward and declare suddenly heavy respect for Clint Eastwood. This film converts people like GOODFELLAS redeems the gangster film. This is just about the only film this decade to win Best Picture that actually, unquestionably deserved it, like, say, AMADEUS or LAWRENCE OF ARABIA did.If you haven't seen it, what the hell is wrong with you?
link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=843&reviewer=151
originally posted: 09/30/99 16:03:28