Clint Eastwood’s Great “Unforgiven” Is a Western in Slow Motion


It’s a pleasure to be reminded, on the 25th birthday of Unforgiven — that weightiest of Clint Eastwood westerns; you know, the one that definitively dresses down the star’s legacy of screen violence — how frequently, even comically, incompetent its characters are. (Film Forum celebrates the silver anniversary this week with screenings of a new 4K DCP restoration.) The grizzled ex-killer William Munny (Eastwood), formerly “a man of notoriously vicious and intemperate disposition” (per onscreen text at the start) and now a death- and drink-averse widower, is shit as a hog farmer, struggling to provide for his children. After he accepts a job proposition, courtesy of the “Schofield Kid” (Jaimz Woolvett), to off a couple of guys who cut up a Big Whiskey, Wyoming, sex worker (Anna Levine, credited at the time as Anna Thomson), Munny can’t even mount his beautiful white horse without falling to the ground. The hair-trigger Schofield Kid talks a big game but has terrible eyesight. And Big Whiskey sheriff Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman) is so bad a handyman that the house he’s building can’t keep rain out. These flashes of fuckuppery contribute to the movie’s cautionary resonance: Unforgiven is a stark western in slow motion, obsessed with reflection, not action. When Munny at last guns down the first of the two suspects, Eastwood (working from a screenplay by David Webb Peoples) keeps the scene going. The bleeding man screams, “Jesus, I’m so thirsty,” and Munny, from his secure vantage, demands that the outlaw’s companions take him a drink. It’s this kind of emotional and situational complexity — ninety minutes of narrative tension leading up to a shouted conversation about water as a body bleeds out — that continues to distinguish Unforgiven.

Directed by Clint Eastwood
Warner Bros.
Opens August 4, Film Forum