ReelReviews #105: 1990s Best Picture winner: Unforgiven (1992)

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MARCH 4, 2017 SCREENING: UNFORGIVEN (1992)

 

At last, I arranged a screening of Unforgiven. This iconic early 90’s movie is a rare example of a “Best Picture” winner that was actually pretty mainstream and popular with the general public, at least as far as Westerns go (the previous year’s winner, Silence of the Lambs, was likewise an unusual Best Picture winner because it was popular and a horror film).

 

Unforgiven has been described as a “revisionist western” and a “eulogy to the western genre”, apparently because of its treatment of its source material.  Well, it certainly did not end the western genre, as anyone who’s seen The Hateful Eight (2015) can tell you.  Those who described Unforgiven that way may have been referring to the way the film takes the “anti-hero” treatment established by Clint Eastwood’s earlier westerns to the extreme here.  There are no “good” characters in this movie, and a lot of the scenes with Eastwood’s character referencing the “old days” seem to work on another level and are self-referential to his own career in westerns.  While Unforgiven did not kill off Westerns, it was indeed Eastwood’s final Western movie to date, and he’s unlikely to break that streak now that the actor is in his mid 80s.

 

I enjoyed Unforgiven, which was a very difficult feat for the film to achieve, given that I generally avoid Westerns and Unforgiven was deliberately made to be as bleak and depressing as possible.  The cast contains a slew of earlier Oscar winners:  Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman, etc., and they create some very memorable characters here. The basic story is about Eastwood and his two companions seeking out two men to assassinate as revenge for those characters beating and mutilating a young prostitute.  Without giving away too much of the plot, the film’s message is basically that killing will not bring peace of mind and will just result in more killing. This simple concept is done in a very compelling and grounded manner, so much so that the execution of the two scumbags (which occurs in different scenes) is done in a sloppy manner (for example, one is killed while reliving himself in an outhouse).

 

Gene Hackman, who plays the local sheriff and symbol of law enforcement, ends up ironically being the most “evil” character in the film, after he arrests and tortures Morgan Freeman’s character to get information about Clint Eastwood.  Freeman’s first appearance in the film to me seemed to be a token attempt to add forced “diversity” to a Western movie, but his role in the story turned out to be well written and pivotal to the film.

 

With its soft opening and ending coda appearing on screen, Unforgiven has a strange “storybook” type of quality for such an ugly and dark movie. While it’s not the kind of film I would want to watch a second time, and some parts seemed to drag or go off in a random direction, most of Unforgiven is very compelling and cinematic.  I’m not sure if it’s the “Best Picture” of 1992 only because its fellow nominees like A Few Good Men and Scent of a Woman were also solid movies in my mind. But what it is, Unforgiven can be forgiven for the aspects of I didn’t like. It’s a first-rate movie.

 

*** out of ****

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