Monday, 2 April 2012
FilmQuest 2012 (12/30): 'Unforgiven'
A huge box office and Academy Awards success in 1992, Clint Eastwood's 'Unforgiven' proved to be one of many recent false dawns for the Western. Like the Coen Brothers 2010 'True Grit' and contemporary favourite 'Dances With Wolves', 'Unforgiven' not only managed to renew audience enthusiasm for tales of the Old West but also became an instant classic of the genre. Spectacular film though it is, this popularity was no doubt assisted by the presence of Eastwood, starring and directing, which gives the film extra weight and pop culture significance. It's, as things stand, the last Western from an actor more closely associated with the genre than any other (with the possible exception of John Wayne) and proves a fitting coda.
As cantankerous former gunslinger William Munny, Eastwood is effectively looking back on his own past as a screen icon with the same mixture of shame and pride as the anti-hero. Munny professes to have been cured of wickedness and sin by his late wife, yet you can immediately tell this is not so much a change of character as an act of repression. As he gets further and further into his last great adventure - tracking down two cowboys who deformed a prostitute, in the company of his best friend Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman) and near-sighted outlaw wannabe The Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett) - his pretense at a moral crusade gives way to a lust for violence, especially when in the service of vengeance.
Like all the great modern Westerns, the decline of the Old West (and of the genre itself) is built into the narrative. But in this morally grey film the transition period from frontier barbarism to gentrified modernity is fraught with contradictions. Gene Hackman, who won as Oscar for his trouble, plays lawman Bill Daggett, who forbids weapons in his town in order to maintain the fragile peace. His real passion is for building a house in which he hopes to retire finally free from conflict (giving rise to that great line "I don't deserve to die like this... I was building a house"). It is his willingness to forgive the cowboys, rather than beating or hanging the men as demanded by the other prostitutes, that serves as the catalyst - whilst his zero tolerance policy for those who cause trouble is the act which finally unleashes the demons that lurk within Munny's soul.
There is no right or wrong or morality in 'Unforgiven' and the town of Big Whiskey. Not in Hackman's attempts to keep the peace or in Eastwood's attempts to avenge a wronged woman. There is only ever an ill-defined moral high-ground masquerading as the pretext for violent acts - with revenge the perfect cover for cruelty. Perhaps Freeman is the only honest and decent man in the picture (abandoning the outlaw party as soon as it comes to killing) - and he pays the price for it. So is it a nihilistic film, suggesting that forgiveness and freedom from our most violent impulses are impossible? Perhaps, though I'm not sure. I think Munny's final alcohol and rage fueled rampage is as much a comment on audience expectations as anything else - with the viewer complicit in Eastwood's decline from faux nobility as we will him to go badass on the sheriff and his posse. We all want to hear Eastwood tell the crowded bar "Any man who doesn't wanna get killed better clear on out the back".
It's a mechanism the director subverted to dazzling effect at the climax of the more recent 'Gran Torino', with both films being as much about star semiotics as anything else as Eastwood comes to terms with his own screen image.