Yes, I have been living under a rock all these years as I have only just watched this exceptional film. I do of course remember it coming out and the associated press that it had re-invented and/or marked the final chapter of the Western Genre. I am not sure either sentiment is wholly accurate (or wholly inaccurate) but it is certainly true that there is a sense of revelation about the film.
Cards on the table, of all the genre's of fiction I have found those of spy thrillers and westerns to be the hardest to get into. This is not the post to address the issues I have with the spy genre (although some of my feelings are in the James Bond and Prisoner posts bellow), but I feel its only fair to elaborate on my misgivings about Westerns, if only so that my feelings on Unforgiven are given a proper context.
I've never been short of exposure to Westerns. My Grandfather was a keen fan of the genre and I would spend many an hour with him whilst he was watching Westerns. And to be fair, there were a couple that I liked and would happily sit through again (The Shootist comes to mind). But I generally find that the genre too often falls into a cliche (as opposed to archetype) and worse still, corniness. Similarly I have problems with the depiction of the wild west in terms of the treatment of the genocide of the Native American people and a treatment of guns and death that ranges from the perfunctory to glorification. Too many of the old westerns were simply insturments of the Hollywood propaganda machine that operated throughout the cold war. On a more superficial level the bombastic scoring and often bland cinematography and direction also irked me.
It was partly because of these feelings that I consciously avoided watching Unforgiven for so long. A large part of me felt that it would not live up to the hype, another part of me felt that I would not be able to give it a fair viewing.
Anyhow, I felt that what with Gary Dobbs campaign and impending book, the time had come to give the film a go.
Needless to say I am really glad that I did so. Once again Wikipedia is the friend of anyone looking for a plot synopsis.
WHAT I LIKED:
The opening. Compelling and shocking in its brutality. This would be a good opening for any film and would obviously work if transposed to virtually any other genre (crime, historical saga, action movie etc, probably not for a rom-com though!). Its immediately apparent that the violence in this film MEANS something. Its not a stylised and sanitised punch-up suitable for kiddies to watch at the pics on a Saturday morning.
Similarly the film wisely avoids any involvement or reference to Native Americans. This is a no-win situation for modern westerns in my opinion. Whilst the treatement of this issue in older westerns can be, if not excused, then at least understood in the context of the time in which the films were made; there is no way that a current western could (or indeed should) style the stories in the veign of the older westerns. Similarly it is unlikely that, in a post George W Bush world, a Hollywood film would be able to point out the fact that the America of today is the result of systematic ethnic cleansing.
The films treatment of violence and death is light years ahead of not only most westerns, but most films to come out of America. In particular it is clear that fights lead to pain and injury, bullets to serious injury and death. Similarly the morality of the frontier way of life is examined from a number of perspectives. Its clear that much of what happened in those days may not have been right, or even considered right at the time, but was probably necessary a great deal of the time. On the other hand the raw deal that the women get never feels anything other than unjust and arbitrary. Interestingly, the film doesn't really offer any resolution to these issues. I am not even sure that it poses clear questions. Thus at times the film feels like a morality play without a moral. This is not to say that the film is empty, nor do I consider this a critisism. More that the film has a unique and fascinating tension to it. It feels not so much open ended as unresolved and it has stayed with me nearly a week on from viewing it.
On a superficial level, the cast are uniformly excellent and the direction and cinematography is moody and involving. Far removed from the flat and bland wildernesses that I tend to associate with westerns. The music too is both effective and unobtrusive.
Best of all of is the climax of the film. Never before have I seen a Western with an ending as taught as this. From the moment that Morgan Freeman's character is captured there is a feeling of dread and of events spiralling out of control. Again the death of his character is treated as a big deal. I think that a lot of people would've realised that the shit was about to go down once Clint's character started to drink again. But a more subtle indication is there in the fear of the woman who breaks the news as she has realised the she and the others have made a deal with (a former) devil.
If I can digress for a slight moment. The 7th Doctor acquired the moniker of "The Oncoming Storm" following the destruction of Skaro in Rememberance of the Daleks. I immeidately though of this at the beging of the scene in which Clint walks into the bar. What I found terrific about this scene is that you get the sense that this is new territory for the character. Although previously a proficient killer and then a reformed, rightous man, this is a melding of both aspects. A man killing from rightous anger. Off the top of my head I think this is probably the most effective and powerful finale to a film since The Empire Strikes Back (or possible Resevoir Dogs).
To conclude, I loved it!