***/**** | Image A- Sound B Extras B+
starring Clint Eastwood, Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman, Richard Harris
screenplay by David Webb Peoples
directed by Clint Eastwood
Even if time and HBO's "Deadwood" have made Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven into something less revisionist and more just a furthering of the Siegel/Leone mythology, the fact remains that the picture's earned its place in the company of other flawed masterpieces like The Searchers and The Man from Laramie. At the time of its release in 1992, as my editor Bill once ably laid out, its pending release was actually seen as a joke, earned at the expense of a trio of legendary, completely-indefensible flops. Its serious-mindedness--what appeared to be an unsentimental accounting for the remorseless bastards Eastwood had parlayed into immortality--therefore took audiences expecting another Heartbreak Ridge, "western edition," by surprise.
And it was a surprise well-earned, a tremendous one that's faded considerably in the light of two decades of Eastwood performances and films at least as thoughtful about the star's advancing age and increasing decrepitude--before and behind the camera. J. Edgar, after all, could only have been made by a really old person. Best not to even talk about the enervated Early Bird buffet that is Hereafter. Unforgiven, then, becomes an object lesson in the slipperiness of timelessness: What was seen in 1992, and for a good decade hence, as the ne plus ultra of anti-westerns is now, to a sensibility feasting on far grittier, more uncompromising repasts, a good try that might have been better if the whores were uglier, the town filthier, the wounds more grievous, the villain victorious, and the heroes not only not particularly heroic but dead besides, buried in unmarked holes. I'm thinking of Winchester '73, Seven Men from Now, and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Most of all, I'm thinking McCabe & Mrs. Miller was the final word on revisionist westerns more than two decades before Unforgiven and has persisted in being so, without losing any of its power, for over forty years now.
In the rearview, Eastwood's tonal follow-up A Perfect World is his true masterpiece, a defining work of the '90s and a harbinger for No Country for Old Men at least fifteen years ahead of its time--reason enough, if reason were needed, for its disastrous box-office performance. (If only the Eastwood of A Perfect World had also directed Unforgiven. Compare it to the Japanese Clint Eastwood, Takeshi Kitano, fast following Sontatine with his masterpiece Hana-Bi.) It leaves Unforgiven in an interesting twilight--the same one it strove for intra-textually upon release, that of a "meta" fiction that owes a significant portion of its resonance to our relationship with it as an artifact and to our knowledge of Eastwood's storied, serape'd career. I'm a much different person now than I was in 1992. The things I've lost, the things I've seen (and here I start to sound a little like Roy Batty from another movie (re)written by Unforgiven's screenwriter, David Webb Peoples), have all contributed to Unforgiven suddenly seeming "quaint." Its lessons are safe: the black guy defines, then dies for, his white buddy (a role Morgan Freeman would reprise, to varying degrees of sacrifice, in The Shawshank Redemption and Million Dollar Baby); and Clint's persona as an invulnerable killing machine remains intact, encapsulated in a moment where, unable to knock a bottle off a stump with a pistol, he retrieves a scattergun to contribute an elderly punchline to the sequence. What lingers from Unforgiven, in fact, are Little Bill's last line ("I was building a house!")--which confirms that Hackman's performance did steal the whole damn film--and the notion that the "cut whore" (Anna Levine) will go to her grave thinking Will (Eastwood) turned down sex with her because of her (really very tame) scars. I'm not suggesting that Unforgiven seeming not as dark, not nearly as melancholy, certainly not as revolutionary, as it did when I was nineteen years old is a good thing--just the opposite. That Unforgiven seems polite now strikes me as a kind of tragedy, though it's not clear if I'm mourning the loss of my innocence in a general sense or the loss of the ability to be surprised that Clint Eastwood isn't kissing a chimp or Bernadette Peters in this one.
Will is introduced in silhouette in one of DP Jack Green's many lovely, impossibly-lit tableaux while a scrolling text identifies him as both a notorious gunslinger and a widower whose wife had convinced him to undertake a gentler, more domestic path. He enters the film a failed pig-farmer and ward to two young children, lured out of retirement by a tall tale and the promise of a bounty, should he manage to murder two cowboys accused of slicing-up a hooker in the small town of Big Whiskey. Learning of said bounty, and none-too-pleased by the unsavoury element that such a prize will attract to his corner of frontier heaven, sheriff Little Bill enacts martial law, promising to exact a brutal punishment for any killers hapless enough to show up--including English Bob (Richard Harris), who has lately been killing railroad chinks to save the line the cost of their salary.
Pulp writer/biographer Beauchamp (Saul Rubinek) provides comic counterpoint to the savagery of Big Whiskey (Little Bill reads the lurid title of Beauchamp's "Duke of Death" as "Duck of Death," and no one dares correct him), pissing down his leg when presented with real men of blood and learning, at presumably the same rate we all did in 1992, that there is nothing romantic about death in the open among strangers. At least, that's the ostensible message, but Unforgiven at its end allows Will to live out his assertion that "I was always lucky when it came to killin'," meaning the coldness of the movie's title is undermined in part by the idea that he's not acting very sorry. Frankly, the action is still too sexy, and the consequences are not nearly dire enough when the only unexpected death is of Will's sidekick Ned (Freeman)--and, because he's the black guy sidekick, not nearly unexpected enough. Its pathos--then and now, we realize--comes in the understanding that our favourite character is Little Bill. We're sorry he's not able to finish building his house, so what does it make us when the guy we like most is the law and not the outlaw? Maybe the compromise is that Eastwood let Hackman be Little Bill; how differently would the film play were they to swap roles?
The introduction of teen sidekick "The Schofield Kid" (Jaimz Woolvett) smacks of Boy Wonder pandering, the character too undeveloped for his eventual come-to-Jesus to land with much gravity. He appears to be there to witness grizzled Will and Ned's hard-won, saddlebag wisdom on our behalf and functions mostly as comic relief. Maybe, if we stretch, he's old-hat, budding fuddy-duddy Eastwood's commentary on the recently-completed Young Guns diptych. The character detracts in the same way others do, especially Beauchamp, whose humiliation we recognize as a particular kind of anti-intellectualism that Unforgiven pays lip-service to decrying (the film would be just another oater, and a slow one at that, without a critical approach) yet ends up satisfying. (The motions of a gunfight aren't properly deconstructed for another three years, with Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man.) The seed of its continued relevance is located in the idea that Unforgiven doesn't work as high art anymore, but could find its eternity as pulp art of the sort that Beauchamp writes, knowing that his books eventually metastasize into superhero comics. The power of the film isn't that it's the first revisionist western (it's actually one of the last until The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and not that revisionist anyway), but rather that it's the first modern redux of a comic-book superhero: Leone's Man Without a Name given a nebulous epilogue and depth as a character by a dead wife, cute children, and a bad case of the flu. Suddenly everyone comes into better definition: tortured comic-book antihero vs. ambiguous supervillain in a still-idealized one-horse Metropolis. Maybe it's no accident that Hackman played a similar type in Superman--and Freeman in Batman Begins.
THE ORIGINAL DVD EXTRAS
In addition to a not-uninteresting yakker from Richard Schickel, who relates secondhand on-set anecdotes (in addition to providing a thorough consideration of Munny's actions),find, in SD: a meditative documentary--hampered by an intrusive number of clips but legitimized by insightful interviews with David Webb Peoples, et al--called "All On Accounta Pullin' a Trigger" (20 mins.), which Morgan Freeman more or less hosts; "Eastwood & Co.: Making Unforgiven" (24 mins.), a 1992 featurette in which we discover that long dialogue scenes between men on horseback are staged with the actors standing on ladders, as their equine co-stars are far too impatient for that sort of thing; "Eastwood...A Star" (16 mins.), another making-of with a career retrospective slant; and Schickel's official retrospective Eastwood on Eastwood (68 mins.), an overrehearsed rundown of Eastwood's life in Hollywood and elsewhere narrated by John Cusack. An engaging episode of "Maverick" that guest-starred Eastwood, "Duel at Sundown" (49 mins.), rounds out the worthwhile package along with Unforgiven's blurry theatrical trailer.
Unforgiven returns to Blu-ray (A Perfect World is set to make its debut on the format in June) in a simple "20th Anniversary" reissue. The difference between standard def and HiDef is, of course, undeniable: textures, blowing grass, the dust on the shirts of the men in the canyon ambush were never more detailed at home. There's no discernible difference, however, between this 2012 Blu-ray release and the 2006 HD-DVD: same VC-1 encoding, comparable bitrate. (Indeed, they utilized the same source, probably dating back to the 2002 DVD.) Funny to think that at this point, it would cost about the same to buy an HD-DVD player and this title on that format for the price of this edition. The image is admittedly beautiful despite not expanding any horizons, honouring Green's colour chiaroscuro, but whether or not Unforgiven begged another run through the telecine, it deserved one. More disappointing to me is the lack of lossless audio, as the 5.1 Dolby Digital track (640kbps) sounds stale now. The film at its heart is the first in a line of revisionist superhero movies, thus when the gunshots don't move your organs with their cavernous basso profundo, it suggests an opportunity lost.
The other major disappointment of this commemorative release is that there's nothing new in terms of extras (see sidebar for a recap of everything recycled from the Two-Disc Special Edition DVD)--except, of course, for the 54-page bound insert, featuring an essay by Richard Schickel that proves he's as much of a gasbag in print as he is in person. (Recorded in 2002, his commentary for the film may, in fact, represent the last moments of his flagging credibility.) Production notes and photos from the shoot barely forgive the Digibook packaging for messing up the profile of my Blu-ray shelf.-Walter Chaw