Unforgiven (1992, Clint Eastwood)

Unforgiven is not, critics emphatically insist, a western; it is an anti-western. I don’t think it’s either. It’s a film noir, in color, that happens to be set in the Old West and happens to star (and to be directed by) Clint Eastwood. Though only adequately directed (widescreen is employed to little effect; while the cinematography is vivid, there are very few visual ideas of any real significance), marred by a meaningless fetish for darkness that crosses some kind of line for color photography, the film is extremely difficult not to at least sort of enjoy. Showered in Oscars and labeled by a film school friend as “the only perfect movie ever made,” Unforgiven is not great or anything resembling great, but it does have a spark of fun and that’s quite an achievement coming from Eastwood, whose labored, bleak, self-congratulatory, vaguely inept efforts of the last decade have been claustrophobic at best, inhumanely depressing at worst. Eastwood could once tell a story competently enough, though, and Unforgiven is a handy reminder; for all his lack of technical expertise, he has a grasp on the final product that many more accomplished filmmakers do not.

His “anti-western” is a film noir because it stems from an attack on a hooker and features three important characters (Eastwood, Morgan Freeman, and nemesis Gene Hackman; all merely adequate, never any great shakes), none of them offering the comfort of a simple good or evil streak. The film is plot-driven enough to allow subtleties of characterization to unfold gradually, so that the bastard in Freeman is buried compared to the one fighting to worm its way out of Eastwood, who repeatedly attempts to convince himself that he has reformed from his days as a gunfighter. (He and Freeman are on their way to murder the cowboys who fucked up the prostitute.) It’s also a film noir because of the way its characters, its director, and its audience are simultaneously driven to and from violence. Some have called it an anti-violence story; I’m not sure how they arrived at that conclusion, but they can have it. It’s mostly a story about the elusive moral nature of violence, and it’s a questioning of how much or little it can accomplish. The film is determined not to take a stand, but in its fashion, it does.

Problem is, the muddy message is too muddy. It’s been done before (Straw Dogs) and since (Dogville), the story of violence and revenge as an uncomfortable outgrowth of human nature itself, but the effect here is much closer to the anemic High Noon. The final head to head is a bit too cut and dried, especially after so much has done to set up the outlaws as complex, the law as evil. It still can be read as a meditation on the shady nature of violence, but the ugliness of that final scene is hard to tiptoe past. It’s a filmmaking failure rather than a moral one; I get what Unforgiven is driving at, but Straw Dogs ensured that the final release of its character was the final release for the viewer as well, whereas we simply react in horror at Eastwood’s actions at the climax. That was probably the intention, but it gives the audience too much of an easy way out; ambiguity falls into a graceless confusion, and in trying not to say something, the movie says too much. It gives up its chance to say something about people and about death in favor of saying something (kinda) about movies, something decidedly anticlimactic because its stock is nothing more than counterclichés. There’s sometimes a thin line between complexity and smarminess; we haven’t been quite sold enough on Eastwood’s character to frighten ourselves the way we do in the other films mentioned, Dogville especially — the bitterness and glory and terror of the final win against the enemy. We deserve to be implicated here, and we’re not.

Nevertheless, the ending is still potent and wrestles wordlessly with precisely the moral quandaries and suspicions about violence that the rest of the movie talks (and talks, and talks) over — but that in a sense is why its jarring nature is so troubling. It’s intriguing to track how carefully Eastwood treads the line in setting up the audience for the wrong movie, an exercise I find wrongheaded but impressive all the same. The movie looks up to almost the end of the second half to be heading toward a conclusion about escaping the past, about forgiveness. The parallel stories prepare to converge and become a vivid screed against revenge killing, with the heroes riding away into the sunset, the clichés of warmongering westerns conquered. This is where the logic of the “anti-western” grows shady, because in fact, Unforgiven becomes a real western in its last ten minutes. At first the film seems to be a story about Eastwood himself coming back for one last try at the game he’s becoming too old for. Then he has glory days again, only now, thanks to context, it’s all a bit (deliberately) sickening. The game being played here is maybe too precise and clinical, of defeating the ideals of the traditional western, because in the end, isn’t it too late and deeply reactionary to worry about that dead horse now? Didn’t The Searchers, among others, make this point more elegantly? I suppose it can be read as a personal quest for its director. But “personal” is the last word one considers when confronted with the final film.

Unforgiven is reasonably entertaining on first pass, though, for all its flaws (I admit to being bored when revisiting it for this project, but that might not be the movie’s fault): an opening sequence so obnoxiously sexist, lurid and violent it nearly loses the viewer in an instant, all-too-Hollywood moments like the majority of Eastwood’s dialogue and the ludicrous treatment of the female characters, an inexcusable digression involving a character called “English Bob,” and more orchestration, calculation, and manipulation than you’ll find in a year of slasher movies. That a movie could conquer all that and make me actually shut up and sit back for at least a little while, a western even, is something of an achievement. Revisiting, though, I found it a pedestrian effort that fails to justify its own overexcited one-upping of its genre; it relies on a cinema of gimmicks, which makes sense because that’s the kind of filmmaking Clint “New York Times Bestseller List” Eastwood understands best.

Bearing its title in mind, Unforgiven is probably the most hopelessly pessimistic film to win Best Picture. Some say it’s pro-gun, some say it’s an atheist chroncile of anarchic life without spirituality not unlike Crimes and Misdemeanors, some say it’s a forerunner to Crash in its use of stereotypes to try and conquer stereotypes, or something. Unforgiven is so, er, unforgivably trite when its “subtext” is examined, and yet so innocently watchable, that it’s a good idea not to think too much about it and just watch. It will feel much better that way, because as an actioner or a thriller it’s just too lazy and meditative; as a thoughtful examination of the western itself it rings hollow.

[Slightly updated from a review originally posted in 2007.]

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