I recently watched Unforgiven for the first time. No excuse as to why it took so long, especially since a character (Saint of Killers) in one of my favorite stories of all time (the Preacher series) is based on director/star Clint Eastwood's character and I love the actor's old Westerns. I just never got around to it. Maybe it was because of Morgan Freeman. Sure, he's talented, but he rubs me the wrong way.
I was wrong in waiting, as this film, which moves slowly but deliberately, was an incredible meditation on the nature of violence and whether or not you can ever truly let go of your past. Taken on it's own, that is what it is. Taken as part of Eastwood's cinematic history and it becomes a reflection on his career.
The Western is America's samurai story, though the "cowboy" in real life was far less of a honorable person than the samurai. It is the closest thing we have to those warriors, and because of that we romanticize it. The rugged individual riding out on the prairie gunning down inhuman savages -- it all makes for a great story, but really does little to speak of for the history of racism and moral corruption (and let's not even speak of the commonplace homosexuality) that accompanied all that. It is part of America's history, but like most of America's history, it has been twisted into something it's not. Eastwood doesn't address that here ... at least not fully. Instead, he concentrates on what violence does to people, and in that sense this film is a thing of beauty.
When you first meet Eastwood's Will Munny, he is a widowed, bumbling pig farmer with two children. He also has a history. He was a crazed killer who gunned down men, women and children with no remorse. Life is different now, though. He had met a woman who changed him, and he plans on sticking to that. Without giving away the film's plot, he is presented with a situation that calls on part of that past he can't seem to call up until something horrible happens to his friend. Munny is responsible for his friend's fate, and that is when Munny calls upon whatever drove him in the past to help him wield a horrible vengeance. It is here that Eastwood returns to the man-with-no-name of his past movies. He becomes the good, the bad, and the ugly all rolled into one. If you haven't seen those previous films, you will still be moved by what is presented in Unforgiven, but if will mean more if you've followed Eastwood throughout the years.
My dad, rest his soul, was the one who introduced me to horror movies and to Eastwood. We would watch Sergio Leone's take on the myth of the West on Saturday afternoons. The Spaghetti Westerns would inevitably lead to some Dirty Harry movies. It was a good education for me, and it is something that has never really left me. While watching Kill Bill Vol. 2 I could see exactly where Tarantino got his inspiration. It was with this same sense of film history that I watched Unforgiven. It was like watching the culmination of years of contemplation, and it was unlike anything I ever expected out of a genre I pay little attention to, and for that I was pleased.
-Doug Brunell (America's Favorite Son)