My favorite movie. Here's the review I wrote 4 years ago:
For me, this is the definitive western. It is a perfect example of filmmaking, storytelling, directing, acting, cinematography . . . any and every thing associated with filmmaking. There are so many things I love about this movie, I don't know where to start. Clint Eastwood made a movie about so many things and ideas, that it's impossible for me to pinpoint which is my favorite.
The movie starts off beautifully with a wide shot of the Munny home, accompanied by a touching piece of music (Eastwood composed himself) and a preface touching upon William Munny's wife and his mother-in-law - two people that are never seen in the movie. It's there to basically tell us how one woman was able to affect one of the most notorious gunfighters the west had ever seen (in this movie's universe anyway). The movie ends on a similar note: with the Munny's home, and text describing what happened after the movie's events.
After the preface, we immediately see where the movie is headed; a group of whores offer a reward for anyone who kills two cowboys who sliced and diced one of their own after she laughed at how "small" he was. Word reaches Munny through a young, cocky cowboy who longs to be famous and infamous. Munny, who's apparently not too good of a farmer, opts to go with the kid so as to get a little bit of money so his kids won't suffer much more; he takes an old partner of his along with him - played by Morgan Freeman. They're up against the town sheriff, Lil Bill, played by Gene Hackman (who won an Academy Award for this role).
Through the cast of characters, we see lots of symbolism and metaphors that have come with westerns. The young cocky kid believes that killing the two cowboys will not only be easy, but bring him fame and prestige. There is a biographer of a known gunman, whose novels are exaggerated and inaccurate. The sheriff's deputies are cowardly and mostly inept. Lil Bill is able to set the biographer straight; telling him that his novel depicting a gunfighter as a hero is basically crap and that killing a man is no easy feat. Eventually the brash wannabe also gets a real tough lesson about "real life."
And while how this movie is telling us that the West is tough, that killing is hard, it's not how it is in the dime novels, and what not - every time Will Munny's name and/or his exploits are brought up, it seems exactly like it is in the dime novels. This is one of my favorite aspects of the movie; while the novels, young up-and-comers, and biographers are over-exaggerating stories, it seems Munny's adventures are under-exaggerated. This dichotomy is one of the subtle things that makes this movie such a great classic.
The movie's stance on violence and killing is also an understated point. The goal of several of the characters is to kill two cowboys; the town sheriff is trying to prevent any potential assassins from entering the town armed. He doesn't want the boys killed (obviously), so he intimidates those he believes to be killers by kicking their ass. There's an engaging scene of him beating down a known gunfighter that he knows is there for the "job;" I'm convinced it's the scene that won Hackman the Academy Award. The sheriff also explains how killing somebody isn't that easy; there are also scenes in which William Munny shares his stance on killing people, giving some of the truest lines anyone has ever spoken, such as "Hell of a thing killin' a man . . . take away all he's got, and all he's ever gonna have."
The movie's finale is arguably one of the most gripping of all time. Up until the end we see what William Munny has become after meeting and marrying a fine woman, who taught him the "error of his ways." At the end, we see what he was, a killer, and how good a killer he was. We see while the lessons of Lil Bill and how killing a man was hard were true for most people, William Munny was the exception. It's a slow build up - starting with Munny taking some whiskey for the first time since forever, and his showdown with the townsfolk. It's a scene where you can't take your eyes away.
Along with all the symbolism, characters, finale, and everything, the movie also showcases some beautiful cinematography. Scenes lit by campfire, some snowy landscapes, and even the protagonists riding through the rain make for some beautiful shots. It was nominated for Best Cinematography, but did walk away with Best Picture, Director (Eastwood), Supporting Actor, and Editing at the 1993 Academy Awards. When people think westerns, Unforgiven is rarely the first that come to mind, but it is the first to come to my mind when I think of the genre. It is my favorite movie and has been for years.