Clint Eastwood was, for virtually two decades, America's least recognised and lauded film director. Yet from Play Misty for Me (1971) to Bird (1988), via such finely chiselled films as The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) and Honkytonk Man (1982), Eastwood's art has become steadily richer and more precise.
With Unforgiven, poetic justice occurred. For the Western which at last won Eastwood industry recognition, critical acclaim and audience support is also his masterpiece. This superbly crafted work, written some twenty years previously by David Webb Peoples (Hero, 1992), unfolds with the inexorability of grand tragedy.
William Munny (Eastwood) is called away from his regular life as farmer and single father to take up once more his sordid vocation as a hired killer. Hitching up with an old friend (Morgan Freeman) and a young fool (Jaimz Woolvett), he goes on the trail of two cowboys involved in the mutilation of a prostitute. Between Munny and his prey, however, stands the ambiguous, sadistic lawman Daggett (Gene Hackman).
In Unforgiven all characters are complex, and all actions set off a chain of dire, murky consequences. The morality of the tale – who is to blame for wrongdoing and who has the right to punish it – is at every point ambiguous and painfully impossible to adjudicate.
Yet, while the film is a reflection on social processes as lucid and logical as Brecht's Mother Courage, it is also poetic, mysterious and dreamlike. This man Munny, marked by the terrible original sin of murderous violence, is also a saviour, a figure of honour, a noble puritan.
The irreconcilable emotions Munny arouses resonate long after this Western tragedy has reached its bitter end.
MORE Eastwood: A Perfect World, Million Dollar Baby, Absolute Power, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, The Bridges of Madison County, Space Cowboys, Blood Work, Pale Rider, Mystic River, The Mule
© Adrian Martin July 1993