Eastwood’s Unforgiven Returns

“In an unusual bit of programming synchronicity,” writes Ben Kenigsberg in the New York Times, “IFC Center will show High Plains Drifter—one of Clint Eastwood’s earliest directorial efforts, in which he casts himself as an amoral stranger who agrees to defend a hapless town from outlaws—the same week that Film Forum screens a 25th-anniversary restoration of Unforgiven, Mr. Eastwood’s landmark revisionist western from 1992.”

“Like John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) and Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate (1980) before it, Unforgiven was an epitaph for the genre,” writes Craig Williams for the BFI. “With Clint himself playing reformed outlaw William Munny—a hog farmer, widower and father, who returns to his old ways for one last job, to collect the sizable bounty on a scoundrel who disfigured a prostitute—it remains Eastwood’s definitive statement on the western as an American art form.”

In the Village Voice,Danny King finds that it’s “a pleasure to be reminded . . . how frequently, even comically, incompetent its characters are. . . . Munny can’t even mount his beautiful white horse without falling to the ground. The hair-trigger Schofield Kid [Jaimz Woolvett] talks a big game but has terrible eyesight. And Big Whiskey sheriff Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman) is so bad a handyman that the house he’s building can’t keep rain out. These flashes of fuckuppery contribute to the movie’s cautionary resonance: Unforgiven is a stark western in slow motion, obsessed with reflection, not action.”

Unforgiven brought the revisionist revenge film into the 1990s,” writes Chuck Bowen at Slant, “and, by extension, the 21st century, ushering forth action narratives that feigned outrage at the violence they were nevertheless selling as an all-inclusive package designed to please all parties. This film also minted Eastwood as an auteur beyond repute, which may be irritating to his acolytes, as there are plenty of productions that paved the way for Unforgiven, though many critics wouldn’t deign to take them seriously. There’s The Outlaw Josey Wales,Pale Rider, and particularly High Plains Drifter, which is uglier and far less sentimental than Unforgiven, offering a spectral Eastwood character who’s a legitimately unrepentant sociopath. . . . Unforgiven’s portrait of white male entitlement that's questioned yet rewarded remains rich and haunting, especially as rendered by cinematographer Jack N. Green with a bare and melancholic sense of wide-open space that spins self-pity into a visual song of transcendentalism.”

For more reviews, see the entry at Critics Round Up.

Unforgiven won four Oscars—Picture, Director, Editing (Joel Cox), and Best Actor in a Supporting Role for Hackman—and two Globes, one for Eastwood, the other for Hackman. As James Desborough reports for the New York Daily News, “Hackman’s star turn almost didn’t happen. The veteran actor initially turned the role down because it was too violent, says David Webb Peoples, the writer of the film.” But “Eastwood paid Hackman a visit, and convinced him that the movie . . . wasn’t a celebration of violence. ‘And God bless Gene; he listened to Clint and together they produced something awesome,’ says Peoples. ‘Gene was a revelation.’”

Joe Queenan has worked his way through Warner Bros.’ Clint Eastwood: 40 Film Collection and has evidently come away very, very impressed. “Eastwood,” he writes for the Guardian, “with whom the public has had a love affair for the 59 years since he debuted as high chaparral stud muffin Rowdy Yates in the TV series Rawhide, has probably had the most amazing career in motion picture history. There are bigger stars and there are better directors, and there are other stars who have become accomplished filmmakers, but none of them can touch Eastwood for the breadth and quality of his work, for his success at the box office, and for his ability to never go out of fashion.”

For the Telegraph,Lowenna Waters writes up a list of “10 of the best Clint Eastwood films.”

Update, 8/9: Flavorwire’s Jason Bailey writes about “why Unforgiven remains Eastwood’s masterpiece, and a film that feels so personal to him: because it presents such rich parallels between Will’s mission and Eastwood’s. They’re aging, hardened men, and they’ve learned a thing or two in their years riding and shooting. By the time they reach the end of this journey, both know what they must do—even while they’re aware, perhaps for the first time, of what it really means.”

Update, 8/10: “Neither the most disparaging nor most realistic of the various cinematic responses to the genre’s creaky archetypes, it is nonetheless gratifyingly direct and psychologically astute, stripping the gloss and pretence from the old tropes to reveal their raw, bloody origins in both American history and the modern day moviegoer’s own escapist needs,” writes David Pountain at Little White Lies.

Update, 8/12: “The best lines (‘I guess you think I’m kicking you, Bob’) still sing, the seething sense of vengeance is still thrilling, and the thunderclaps still ring out with moral terror,” writes K. Austin Collins at the Ringer. Unforgiven is “one of the best movies that Eastwood, as a director, has ever made. He closed the book on the genre. Twenty-five years later, we’ve yet to truly reopen it.”

Update, 8/29: For Steve Light, writing for the BLARB, “Unforgiven is a film that is but one more restoration rather than a departure.”

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