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Overall Rating

Worth A Look: 10.45%
Average: 4.48%
Pretty Bad: 2.99%
Total Crap: 4.48%

6 reviews, 98 user ratings

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Unforgiven (1992)
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by Rob Gonsalves

"Clint Eastwood's tombstone movie."
5 stars

Those who identified Clint Eastwood solely with Dirty Harry didn't see "Unforgiven" coming. This, after all, was a guy who'd just (in 1990) directed and starred in "The Rookie," an especially plastic buddy-cop comedy with Charlie Sheen. But some Eastwood fans knew to expect something good soon.

Eastwood has always split his work fairly evenly between the commercial and the serious. Some thirty years ago, smack in the middle of his tough-guy peak as Dirty Harry Callahan, Eastwood chose as his second directorial effort the little-seen May-December romance Breezy (in which he did not appear, though he could plausibly remake it today with himself in the William Holden role). And he had shown, as a director, a strong interest in crafting unusual westerns: look at High Plains Drifter, The Outlaw Josey Wales (which offers the surprising sight of Clint Eastwood crying, though everyone thought it was a big deal when he shed a tear or two in In the Line of Fire), Pale Rider, and even the oddball, heartfelt non-hits Bronco Billy (Eastwood as a New Jersey salesman who poses as a sharpshooter) and Honkytonk Man (Clint as a dying country-western singer). And Eastwood had prefaced The Rookie -- one can only assume he did that one to appease Warner's stockbrokers -- with the excellent biopics Bird and White Hunter, Black Heart. Clearly something big was on the horizon, something that would banish the "Make my day" jeering forever, win over Clint's detractors, confirm the high opinions of those of us who respected him as an artist despite Pink Cadillac, and maybe garner a trophy or two.

That something, of course, turned out to be Unforgiven, which began life as a script by David Webb Peoples (Blade Runner, another downbeat genre-bender about a former killer grudgingly returning to violence) called The Cut-Whore Killings. Peoples' script is hands down the most beautifully shaped work to make it through the major-studio system unmolested in the last twenty years; it's one of those perfect screenplays that screenwriting professors should be teaching instead of the usual Witness or Harold and Maude. Francis Ford Coppola was going to direct it at one time, but Eastwood bought it and then sat on it for about a decade, waiting until he got a bit older, more weathered. Perhaps also he wanted to hone his directorial chops just a bit more: Pale Rider, unfortunately a rather dry and dawdling High Plains Drifter rehash (I wish I liked it more), can now be seen as practice for the equally eligiac and unhurried Unforgiven. Here, though, Eastwood is working with a script that more than fills the two hours and eleven minutes; you don't fully appreciate how much actually goes on in the script -- and how masterfully and economically Eastwood films it -- until you try to synopsize it.

It begins, indeed, with a cut whore -- Delilah Fitzgerald (Anna Thomson), who makes the mistake of giggling at a cowboy customer's "teensy pecker." The cowboy (David Mucci) slashes her face repeatedly, while his more level-headed partner (Rob Campbell) tries to restrain him. Incensed that the men get off with only a fine of seven ponies and a warning from the sinisterly avuncular sheriff, "Little Bill" Daggett (Gene Hackman, never better), Delilah's fellow whores, led by the fiery Strawberry Alice (Frances Fisher, Eastwood's inamorata at the time), raise a thousand dollars and put the word out that they're looking for assassins to avenge Delilah. Word reaches the callow, boastful "Schofield Kid" (Jaimz Woolvett), who seeks out the meanest, most dangerous son of a bitch he knows about -- William Munny (Eastwood), who now toils on his failing pig farm when he's not admonishing his two small children to "remember how your dear departed ma watches over you."

If you don't count his silhouetted figure digging his wife's grave under the opening crawl, Will Munny gets perhaps the most undignified introduction any cinema bad-ass has ever received: sliding around in muck, chasing fever-ravaged hogs. Fever will play an important role later on, and we understand that Will is wrestling with his past self and inner demons about as adroitly as he shepherds his pigs. Will hears the story of Delilah's mutilation (amusingly, the story grows more lurid with each telling, as if the teller were trying to justify his own complicity in murder by making the offense worse than it was), and he says he's doing it for the kids' sake (ah, that old cop-out), but when Will watches the Schofield Kid vanish over the horizon we know exactly what's on his mind. The old ways are calling to him; he needs to see if he's still good at the one thing he used to be fearsomely good at (and now says he regrets). He can invoke his pious wife and recite "I ain't like that no more" all he wants. The fact is, he's going.

Picking up old friend Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman, effortlessly slipping into the kind of role he says he looks for, a part not written for a black actor), Will hits the trail; they catch up with the Kid and ride towards Big Whiskey, Wyoming, where big things are already happening. Little Bill, who is ineptly building his own house (which shows you how tenuous his grasp is on the town's order), has made it concussively clear what will befall any scoundrel who pokes his guns into Big Whiskey. The dandyish English Bob (Richard Harris), accompanied by his obsequious "biographer" W.W. Beauchamp (Saul Rubinek, who seems so out of place in this western that it works hilariously well for his performance), strides into town and is promptly beaten down by Little Bill, who has a penchant for literally stomping his foes into the dirt. English Bob -- who, it's fleetingly suggested, might not even be English -- carries a self-mythologizing air about him, which Little Bill merrily debunks. Attracting Beauchamp away from Bob and towards himself, Little Bill replaces Bob's bullshit with his own bullshit. Little Bill wants Beauchamp to know that showdowns and shoot-outs are usually never as heroic as portrayed in pulp fiction: generally it's a matter of two drunks firing at each other until one of them gets shot or accidentally shoots himself. Will Munny was once the king of that milieu: a lucky drunk who managed to shoot first and accurately.

On one level, Unforgiven is a rigorous deconstruction of both fictitious violence and Eastwood's own career as a trigger-happy "hero" who once said "Shooting's all right as long as the right people get shot." The violence in Unforgiven always hurts, and the killings of the two cowboys have vast dead air around them, the silences of dread and regret. Will is also haunted by the spectres of those he killed, who usually didn't deserve it ("at least nothin' I could remember when I sobered up"), and in his fever his wife also haunts him, covered with worms just like the shades of his victims. Yet Eastwood ups the ante and turns the meanings around: When Ned is captured and killed, Will tanks up on whiskey -- the town's name is maybe a bit much symbolically, but what the hell, I like it -- and goes on a Taxi Driver-like rampage. We are now diabolically set up to want exactly the kind of violence we've been conditioned for two hours to experience as sad and squalid.

It's not, as some clueless critics charged, that the movie sells out and lapses into a violent, vengeful climax. It's that it's brave enough to acknowledge that, at the right time and place, killing people who "have it coming" -- but then again, we all do -- is not only right but also feels good. Will is never more alive in the film than when he walks into that billiard hall to the accompaniment of booming thunder -- a bit hokey, but what the hell, I like it -- and comes to terms with exactly who and what he is. It's not that he gets off on killing; it's that he's a killer, and has spent too long denying it. Perhaps now, having committed murders more justifiable in his mind than booze-soaked shootings, Will can finally be the peaceful father and farmer he seems to want to be. But who knows? Will the splattered head of Little Bill haunt him in his dreams? Or the slashed face of the kindly Delilah? One answer is in the title itself (a vast improvement over The Cut-Whore Killings, I must say), but Unforgiven provides no clearcut answers for any of the questions it raises -- just a simple final crawl that echoes the opening crawl and never fails to choke me up.

Will's wife saw something in him worth forgiving; her mother didn't, and he doesn't either. We do, though. He's a killer, but he's been trying hard not to be. "Unforgiven" is about his failure.

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originally posted: 07/06/06 07:46:48
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User Comments

2/21/17 morris campbell low key but potent Eastwoods great 4 stars
12/31/11 Simon Lovely moral ambiguity, turns western theme on its head; any viewer finds something to like 5 stars
2/03/11 Josie Cotton is a goddess Classic neo-western 5 stars
8/17/10 TravisN One of the few movies in the 90's that deserved its BP award. 5 stars
7/19/10 forest gump Really good western 4 stars
6/08/10 Flathead King Some of the dialogue in this film is a bit odd and the ending lacks credibility. 3 stars
3/08/10 Samantha Pruitt this movie was boring and overrated! 2 stars
1/08/10 Dane Youssef Just maybe the last great western. Eastwood and Hackman scorch. Still have the west in them 5 stars
9/15/09 MB Ignore the morons who don't get it...this film is a masterpiece 5 stars
5/24/09 bud cham very good film. Bit slow in the middle but a rousing last 20 minutes makes up for it. 4 stars
3/22/09 james obrien the very best of this kind of film 5 stars
2/23/09 Caryl Yantis I loved this movie 5 stars
2/15/09 whentempersflare I'm not a big fan of westerns, but this was pretty good. 4 stars
2/12/09 Ming Clint still make my days..Great movie 4 stars
1/26/09 Pamela White Very overrated for a western, weak plot for great actors. 2 stars
1/26/09 Anonymous. the best western i've ever seen. 5 stars
10/22/08 Shaun Wallner Thought this was a good film. 5 stars
9/28/07 mr.mike slightly overrated , but still a classic 4 stars
1/20/07 AJ Muller This, Josey Wales, and The Wild Bunch are the best Westerns ever. Period. 5 stars
9/05/06 MP Bartley Majestic, mythic, moody and magnificent. Deeply and darkly brooding. 5 stars
7/19/06 David Cohen The Hollywood Western can never go back to what it was before "Unfogiven," Thank God! 5 stars
7/06/06 Brian Mckay Only second to the Josey Wales - Godamighty! 5 stars
6/08/06 Peggy Doty Loved this movie deserved all the awards 5 stars
5/12/06 SpyV I love this movie. Fantastic study of character, in a western backdrop. 5 stars
5/10/06 perempe one of the best westerns of today 5 stars
3/04/06 lawyer J.Noble Daggett damn fine! Eastwood, Freeman, and especially Hackman are NATIONAL TREASURES 5 stars
12/09/05 Frank Rountree Excellent story and great acting 5 stars
10/10/05 Agent Sands Darker than your average western. 4 stars
9/13/05 ray mero Clint breaks off his golfing for another bit of squinty gnashing about, um, violence. 1 stars
8/25/05 ES A movie that requires multiple watches for true appreciation 4 stars
8/18/05 Jake Clint Eastwood's Masterpiece 5 stars
7/11/05 sbpat21 a fucking great movie 5 stars
6/05/05 Ubu the Ripper Not the greatest western of all time, but very good. 5 stars
3/18/05 indrid cold The "take away all he's got ..." scene is classic, but otherwise I was somewhat let down. 4 stars
3/12/05 Richard Betts The greatest western ever. Brilliant. 5 stars
2/09/05 Dan Great Movie. 5 stars
1/30/05 Bob Barton This ranks right at the top of all-time greatest western movies ever made 5 stars
7/08/04 Stevo "Take away all he's got, and all he's ever gonna hav." 5 stars
7/04/04 Luiz Gilberto de Oliveira Messias This movie show how the murder really is: Ugly and dirty. 5 stars
5/14/04 Trentus Whitbread POO FACE 1 stars
3/25/04 Lord Haw Haw We all got it comin', kid. 5 stars
1/03/04 A F I hate westerns, yet I rather enjoyed this film. 4 stars
12/14/03 john a powerful film and a great cast 5 stars
11/24/03 Edler One of the greatest ever! 5 stars
11/22/03 adguy Want to see the real west? Take a look. Top notch. 5 stars
9/28/03 Nasty_Gnorc proves that western's aren't dead. 5 stars
8/30/03 Evilmasterfoo Hell of a thing killin' a man. 5 stars
8/03/03 Lord Jiggy Powerful story of a descent into Hell. Superior to most films of the last 10 years 5 stars
7/02/03 AD overated my arse 5 stars
5/16/03 mr. Pink One of the most overrated movies of the 90s. Finale doesn't gel with everything before that 3 stars
3/20/03 May Q. Horney Possibly most overrated Best Pic winner ever, maybe soon to loose distinction to Shitcago. 3 stars
3/03/03 Jack Sommersby A bit underdeveloped, but it's still an outstanding piece of work. 4 stars
2/11/03 Ubu the Ripper Not "Josey Wales". Too much "F" word and a bad guy who cuts prostitute's breasts. Goofy. 2 stars
12/24/02 Dominic We all got it coming kid. 5 stars
10/30/02 Monster W. Kung Quite unique, actually. Awesome. 5 stars
10/09/02 Charles Tatum Eastwood has done better westerns! 3 stars
9/30/02 Own too loose when my pie are gain her High on my "Why the heck did that win best picture?" list 3 stars
9/27/02 Tom Fleeman A very gripping tale with that powerful Clint Eastwood demeanor. 5 stars
9/07/02 Ramblin Wreck This could be argued to be the greates Western movie........and I love Westerns!!! 5 stars
8/14/02 sdfr an instant classic! 5 stars
7/18/02 terry finnegan great film great actors great story 5 stars
3/20/02 Brian Holly Possibly the greatest western movie ever made 5 stars
12/02/01 R.W. Welch Hackman performance boosts this one up from the ordinary. 4 stars
11/26/01 cg perfect debunking of the american ideal 5 stars
10/21/01 Andrew Carden Totally Dull Script, and Very Disturbing To Watch. Not Recommended. 1 stars
8/31/01 spaceworm I still say this film is underrated... 5 stars
7/04/01 jim dyer realism - rare in westerns, very strong here 5 stars
6/15/01 zombie not the best western, but pretty close 5 stars
5/03/01 BrainPan The ultimate anti-western. Glorious. 5 stars
3/08/01 master.node THE best western ever made. And one of the best films. 5 stars
2/17/01 Jake classic 5 stars
11/28/00 Cristopher Revilla the best western ever made, you don't like it, your probably a fucking idiot!!!! 5 stars
11/12/00 john linton roberson To the western what WATCHMEN is to comics 5 stars
8/30/00 Chris Drake Tiresome overblown Eastwood tripe. Enough, already! 1 stars
8/21/00 Matthew Bartley Mean, moody, thought provoking magnificence 5 stars
6/29/00 Terrie Smith Brooding western; last half hour unlike anything I've seen in films. Great cinematography. 5 stars
6/24/00 Naushad Khanji Slept all way.Jury who handed award should be sued 1 stars
5/19/00 tank A masterpiece and arguably the greatest western ever made.The Academy were finally right 5 stars
4/19/00 Avery Everything the western is supposed to be. 5 stars
2/10/00 Mic Booooring 2 stars
1/17/00 Corey Clint is the man, one of if not his best movie. 5 stars
11/17/99 DES Without doubt, the greatest western of all time 5 stars
10/29/99 Neil Harrington One of the greatest westerns of all time 5 stars
10/27/99 Vance Hi-Caliber Western! Deserving of it's Oscars! 5 stars
8/19/99 Jesse Oh baby it rules!!! 5 stars
8/11/99 Phil Mielke Eastwood's Best! Redefined westerns. 5 stars
5/27/99 GothamDK Thinking man's Western. Better than that Tombstone cartoon. 5 stars
4/06/99 Mikef This shit just didn't float my boat. 1 stars
1/02/99 tarkin666 Made me wanna get a six-shooter. 5 stars
12/16/98 Binky Eastwood's best. 5 stars
11/26/98 Mr.Pink Overrated, the shoot-out ending undermines everything that was told before. 3 stars
11/23/98 Peter Eastwood, different for once 5 stars
11/22/98 little jerry Like a western directed by Ingmar Bergman.Incredibly,Bergman couldn't improve on this. 5 stars
11/17/98 Jules Hey, you don't need good guys to have a good movie! 4 stars
10/28/98 Silent Rob A Western that de-glamorizes the myths, and sets a mind to thinkin'. 5 stars
9/05/98 pooky the bald What a great fuckin' movie. 5 stars
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  07-Aug-1992 (R)



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