Welcome back for Day 4 of our Clint Eastwood Spotlight Series! Today I have the privilege of discussing with you (what I consider to be) the greatest modern western made to date: Unforgiven (1992).
According to Eastwood at the time, Unforgiven would be the last western he made, because he did not want to risk repeating himself or imitating someone else’s work. Boy, did he go out of the genre in style.
Not only did the film win Best Picture that year, but it also earned Eastwood his first win for Best Director. He wasn’t exactly working with untested unknowns–when a cast includes Morgan Freeman, Gene Hackman, and Richard Harris as supporting characters, you know the movie cannot possibly be subpar– but you can still feel Eastwood’s distinctive hand guiding the film. It has all his signature touches: the underdog vs. the many, the visceral pull of the scenery, the minimalistic (yet lovely) musical score, the rawness of the emotion his characters feel. Eastwood’s films stay with you long after the credits have rolled, and Unforgiven is a perfect example.
It’s a movie about reputation in all its forms, and the questions posed remind me of that internet meme that was in circulation for a while: What My Mom Thinks I do, What My Friends Think I do, What Society Thinks I Do, What I Actually Do, etc. The film is unapologetic with regard to what these characters have already done, but it also explores the idea of whether or not people can change. When you’ve already done a thing hundreds of times, can you really give it up? If you do give it up, will people let you forget about it? What toll has it already taken on you, and when you look in the mirror are you ever fully free of what society thinks?
Eastwood’s character, the grizzled and timeworn William Munny, grapples with the weight of his own legend throughout the entirety of the film. He’s haunted by the evil deeds of his youth, and the fact that all anyone remembers or wants to talk about is his reputation for murder and meanness. He wants desperately for people to see him, not as he was, but how he currently is. In classic Western fashion, he’s been remade by the love of a good woman– he’s abandoned the whiskey, the killing, the ruthlessness. Now, he’s a solemn widower, looking after his two children and a pig farm in the wake of his wife’s death from smallpox. He lives a simple life, and he’s grateful for the change, but when the much-younger Schofield Kid rides into town one day, promising him a hefty reward for partnership in one final killing, Munny can’t help but accept. His farm is limping along at best, and he needs the money to provide for his children’s future. Not to mention, the lethal justice at hand will be in retribution for two men viciously slashing a woman’s face to shreds after she giggled at the size of one’s penis. So…yeah. It’s probably not going to keep him up at night.
Another interesting angle to the storyline (and further evidence to support Eastwood’s love of the underdog) is that the woman whose face was slashed, as well as the collective group of women offering the reward, are prostitutes. The “madam” of the operation, Strawberry Alice (Frances Fisher), is so enraged by the sheriff’s tepid, initial punishment of the offenders, that she pools the girls’ money and offers up a $1,000 reward to anyone who will kill the two cowboys responsible. Usually, and this is especially the case in Westerns, ladies of the evening aren’t necessarily part of the protagonist set. They play minor roles, or they tempt the wholesome cowboys to ruin. Yet, strangely, the gaggle of prostitutes and the craggy, old cowboys are the heroes of this movie. I love it. It drives home the fact that Clint Eastwood was constantly searching for ways to freshen and reinvestigate old cliches. He didn’t make a movie about women “keeping their place” and allowing injustices to be perpetrated around them; he didn’t even make a movie about two white men attempting to get away with harming a prostitute. He made a movie about two humans harming other humans, and getting their just deserts.
If you think you’re not a big fan of Westerns in general, I highly recommend that you seek out this movie and give it a chance. It’s poignant, beautiful…dare I say majestic? No matter what other adjectives you put in front of it, it’s just a good, good movie. One of Eastwood’s best, and deserving of the Oscar win.
Tomorrow, join me again as we take a look at Eastwood’s softer side in the Meryl Streep weepie, The Bridges of Madison County (1995). You won’t want to miss it!