Reviewed by
Colin Jacobson

Title: Unforgiven (1992)
Studio Line: Warner Bros.

Clint Eastwood's film Unforgiven is an exciting modern classic that rode off with four 1992 Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Director. "The movie summarized everything I feel about the Western," Eastwood told the Los Angeles Times. "The moral is the concern with gunplay." Eastwood and Morgan Freeman play retired, down-on-their-luck outlaws who pick up their guns one last time to collect a bounty offered by the vengeful prostitutes of the remote Wyoming town of Big Whiskey. Richard Harris is an ill-fated interloper, a colorful killer-for-hire called English Bob. Best Supporting Actor winner Gene Hackman is the sly and brutal local sheriff whose brand of law enforcement ranges from unconventional to ruthless. Big trouble is coming to Big Whiskey.

Director: Clint Eastwood
Cast: Clint Eastwood, Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman, Richard Harris, Jaimz Woolvett
Academy Awards: Won for Best Picture; Best Director; Best Supporting Actor-Gene Hackman; Best Film Editing. Nominated for Best Screenplay; Best Actor-Clint Eastwood; Best Art Direction-Set Decoration; Best Sound; Best Cinematography, 1993.
DVD: Widescreen 2.35:1/16x9, standard 1.33:1; audio English DD 5.1, French Dolby Surround; subtitles English, Spanish, French; closed-captioned; double sided - single layered; 33 chapters; rated R; 127 min.; $24.99; street date 9/3/97.
Supplements: Production Notes.
Purchase: DVD | Score soundtrack - Lennie Niehaus

Picture/Sound/Extras: C+/B+/D-

While Silverado may have revived the western at the box office, Unforgiven solidified its place as an art form. Westerns appeared to reach their critical and commercial peak in 1990 when Kevin Costner's Dances With Wolves won seven Oscars - including one for Best Picture - and absolutely cleaned up at the box office; stunningly, this three-hour politically-correct oater raked in about $184 million and would have been the biggest hit of 1990 were it not for Home Alone. Not bad for a movie that most pundits referred to as "Kevin's Gate".

Unforgiven didn't match up to Dances... success on either level. It performed nicely at the box office, with a gross of about $101 million, and it also reaped four Academy Awards, including Best Picture; both of these are terrific on their own but not quite on a par with Costner's epic. Nonetheless, in a way I find Unforgiven's success even more impressive. Granted, Costner's hit was a much bigger risk, since it was almost an hour longer and came during a time when the prospects for westerns still seemed fairly dim. Eastwood had a much better established track record both at the box office and as a director - Dances... was Costner's first turn behind the camera - and also as a star of westerns, since he'd made his name on the Sergio Leone "Man With No Name" films.

Nonetheless, Unforgiven's critical and financial success was significant because it proved the earlier hit wasn't a fluke. Dances... took people by surprise and received its Oscars more as a reward to an underdog than because Costner deserved it; the film's really quite bloated and insufferably apologetic, and the Academy now looks foolish for giving it the Oscar instead of Scorsese's far superior Goodfellas. Unforgiven, on the other hand, had to earn its plaudits the hard way; for Eastwood's film to win Best Picture only two years after another western took the prize seems fairly amazing.

I've always had fairly mixed feelings about the movie myself. I didn't see it until after the Oscars, so it had already developed a tremendous critical reputation by that point. In that light, I found it to be disappointing; it seemed fairly compelling but not anything terrifically special. Looking back, it seems that Unforgiven may have won its Best Picture award more because it was a weak year for movies rather than because it possessed any particular artistic merits.

Now that I've seen the film again, I can't say that I've really changed my mind. Don't take that to mean that I don't like Unforgiven; no, I found it to offer a moderately compelling experience. I just fail to see much about it that allows it to rise above the level of other movies.

Unforgiven has received much attention as an "anti-violent" film. In other words, the movie actively attempts to make violence seem unglamorous and horrible, unlike most pictures. In this regard, it succeeds to an extent. The gunfights seem colder and less passionate and exciting than most, but there's something missing that keeps the movie from really creating an aura of nastiness that might make us find violence more distasteful.

Part of this comes from the film's overt intellectualizing of the issue. There's too much talk, not enough rock. Unforgiven could have demonstrated the disgusting results of violence through visualization, but it prefers to have the actors tell us how bad it is. This comes across as moralizing and condescending, as if we need everything explained to us. A few good shots of some of the results of violence would have been enough; they didn't even need to be graphic, as blood and guts don't necessarily create the best arguments.

One other reason why the film's thesis becomes undermined comes from the movie's ultimate ending. I won't give it away, but the fate of our hero leaves a lot to be desired. Retired gunslinger William Munny (Eastwood) has fought long and hard to shed his wicked ways, but we see him slowly get sucked back into the hatefulness and nastiness he used to display. The consequences of his actions ultimately don't present a satisfying end. Man, it's really hard to discuss this without spoiling the conclusion, so I guess I'll just have to leave it at that; I just thought the coda didn't quite match the message of the rest of the movie.

Some sketchy character development also made it hard to embrace the film's anti-violence message. For the most part, the folks who get killed in Unforgiven come from the usual assortment of evil-doers; we may not applaud their deaths, but we don't find much to mourn either. A few characters appear to possibly be exceptions, but they're presented so flatly that it's hard to know. Unforgiven may want us to think that violence isn't the answer, but it never presents more viable options.

The film succeeds better as it demonstrates the psychological toll taken by violence, but even that isn't fleshed out completely. Again, the movie's coda undermines that aspect of the picture, though our final visual impressions of Munny himself make a convincingly vivid argument. Nonetheless, the impact of the violence just didn't hit me like I felt it should for the film to achieve its goals.

Despite those flaws, Unforgiven remains a fairly well-crafted film that kept my attention. Munny isn't exactly a stretch for Eastwood, but he portrays the gunslinger with an effectively flawed and human quality missing from many of his characters. The supporting cast is top-notch, with stalwarts like Morgan Freeman and Richard Harris along for the ride. Gene Hackman also offers a strong turn as nasty sheriff "Little Bill" Daggett. For whatever problems Unforgiven may have, one can't fault the actors.

I admire the ambitions of Unforgiven, since far too many movies really do glamorize violence. I'm not one of those who believes this sexy presentation of unpleasant actions really contributes to violence in the real world and in no way do I seek to censor it in art, but I do like to see evidence that killing and maiming aren't always fun and games. Unfortunately, Unforgiven doesn't totally achieve its goals, so it remains a somewhat haunting and stirring but flawed film.

The DVD:

Unforgiven appears in both its original theatrical aspect ratio of 2.35:1 and in a fullscreen version on this double-sided, single-layered DVD; the letterboxed image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. For this article, only the widescreen version was viewed. Unforgiven was one of the very first DVDs to appear in March 1997 and shows a few warts that seem related to that fact, but in general it offers a pretty good viewing experience.

Sharpness usually seems crisp and well-defined, though some vague softness can creep in at times. Moiré effects and jagged edges mar the picture from time to time, though neither is severe. The biggest annoyance comes from the appearance of digital artifacts, which can be seen throughout the movie but especially during its first 30 minutes; the still occurred after that but not as consistently. Other print flaws seem fairly absent; I noticed occasional hairs or speckles but the artifacts were the worst offenders.

Colors appear generally subdued but are adequately rich and well-saturated, with no signs of bleeding or noise. Black levels tend to be good though slightly pale, and shadow detail can seem overly opaque on many occasions; I sometimes had trouble discerning what was happening in low-light scenes. In general, Unforgiven looks pretty decent, but a remaster of the title would almost certainly make it much better.

More positive is the film's Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack. This is a pretty spare but effective mix. The front soundstage creates a nicely-broad field of audio, with effects and music blending well across those three channels. The rears contribute some generally quiet but convincing effects and also bolster the music at times. Unforgiven offers a pretty subdued soundtrack for the most part, but it works well in the context of the film.

Audio quality seems consistently excellent. Dialogue is clear and natural, with no intelligibility problems. Effects are deep and realistic; gunfire crackles nicely and the other ambient sounds seem strong. Music is used sparingly but appears clean and smooth at all times. It's not a demonstration--worthy mix, but it does what it needs to do.

Less satisfying are the supplements on Unforgiven since Warner Bros. crammed two versions of the film on this DVD, that didn't leave much room for extras, so all we get are perfunctory biographies of Eastwood, Freeman, Hackman and Richard Harris, a few screens that detail the awards the film won, and one brief page of text production notes. It's a pretty useless collection that doesn't even have room for a trailer!

As a film, Unforgiven has some merits and is generally strong but I thought it fell short of its goals. The DVD offers flawed though good picture and crisp audio but lacks substantial supplements. Unforgiven may be most appropriate for a rental.

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