The UnPopular Opinion: Unforgiven
THE UNPOPULAR OPINION is an ongoing column featuring different takes on films that either the writer HATED, but that the majority of film fans LOVED, or that the writer LOVED, but that most others LOATHED. We're hoping this column will promote constructive and geek fueled discussion. Enjoy!
****SOME SPOILERS ENSUE****
There was a time when people flocked to Westerns the way we do to superhero movies today. Before a lot of science fiction became reality, we looked to historical fiction about cowboys, Indians, gunslingers, and lawmen as our escape from reality and into a world foreign to most of us. Over the last few decades, the Western has become less and less prevalent in movie theaters but the genre still thrives. We continue to get brilliant Westerns each year, even if most don't get wide releases, but they still prove the viability of the tales. The last historical Western to win Best Picture at the Oscars was 1992's UNFORGIVEN which is considered by many to be one of the genre's best offerings. I whole-heartedly disagree.
For many, UNFORGIVEN represents a revisionist take on the Western as well as the film that caps off Clint Eastwood's illustrious career in the genre. Eastwood himself won the Best Director award for the movie, something he would do again over a decade later for MILLION DOLLAR BABY. There is clearly a correlation between Eastwood as a filmmaker and critical accolades, but it is something I just don't see in a lot of his work. I previously took MILLION DOLLAR BABY to task for being overrated and I am prepared to do the same for UNFORGIVEN.
Guess which feature of this scene is the most wooden (Hint: it isn't the tree)
There is a visual splendor to seeing the unsullied side of America. UNFORGIVEN definitely displays that, much like DANCES WITH WOLVES a few years earlier. Seeing the country as if it was over a hundred years ago is a breathtaking feat that becomes more and more difficult as we develop our land. But, there are certain places movies can be filmed that allow you to travel back in time. UNFORGIVEN, from a visual standpoint, gives us several of these vistas that just take your breath away. It is a shame that Eastwood spends so much of the film reveling in how the world is changing. I understand that he wants to make a film about the end of an era, the end of a genre, and the end of a chapter in his own life as an actor and a filmmaker, but when you dedicate your film to the memory and works of Sergio Leone and Don Siegel, you would think you should at least pay homage to them as well.
UNFORGIVEN is boring. The film has very high aspirations to tell the tale of William Munny (Clint Eastwood) coming out of a self-imposed retirement for one last ride for vengeance. Joined by The Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett) and Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman), you expect the film to be a more mature version of THE OUTLAW JOSIE WALES or THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY. While that is not the film Eastwood desired to make, what we instead are given is an elegaic analysis of what the world is like when they don't need cowboys anymore. While that is an admirable tale to tell, UNFORGIVEN does a poor job of telling it. The Coens succeeded in making that movie with NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, a much different type of Western, but one that tells the story in UNFORGIVEN better than UNFORGIVEN.
This is what happens when a stranger rides into town without a mustache.
There is a lot in UNFORGIVEN that just doesn't work for me. For instance, Richard Harris as English Bob. Harris is brilliant in this supporting role as an aging gunslinger whose path is in the opposite direction to Munny. English Bob is followed by a biographer as he is immortalized in pulp fiction. But, the English Bob character is introduced and dispatched thanks to Gene Hackman as Sheriff Little Bill Daggett before even encountering Eastwood. This feels like a wasted opportunity for two of the best characters to share some screen time. English Bob is designed to develop Hackman's character who we already have seen to be a strong villain in this story. Hackman would play an equally strong villain in Sam Raimi's THE QUICK AND THE DEAD, a film that truly does pay homage to the films of Sergio Leone.
Morgan Freeman's portrayal of Ned Logan is, like his Oscar-winning character in Eastwood's MILLION DOLLAR BABY, the conscience of the film. Here he is the lone voice who speaks the truth about the world these characters inhabit and his ultimate demise is the catalyst for the brutal third act of the film. Still, in a movie that should truly be about Eastwood's character, the supporting cast are all far more interesting and yet none of them gel together at the same time. Eastwood, as a director, has never ventured far from a formulaic approach to filmmaking. This means what is on the written page is what you will see on screen, usually with no additional flair or spark. This leaves UNFORGIVEN as a dull and expressionless film that contains a story that requires quite a bit of expression.
As a whole film, UNFORGIVEN fails. The sum of the parts do not work here. You can take the individual performances and, on their own, they warrant the acclaim lauded upon them. You can take the widescreen exteriors here, framed beautifully for our visual enjoyment, and they deserve every award they were given. The screenplay itself by David Webb Peoples (12 MONKEYS, BLADE RUNNER) is a masterpiece about the end of an era. Had this movie been directed by Sergio Leone or Don Siegel, it may have been the movie everyone wants to see in Eastwood's film. Instead, UNFORGIVEN is a movie that people want to see as a masterpiece rather than what it is: a missed opportunity at a great film.
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