The story is one that works on many levels. It begins with one insecure cowboy and a prostitute of Big Whiskey, Wyoming that cascades into an unforgivable act of violence. One that'll beget more when all is done. The local sheriff, "Little Bill" Daggett (Gene Hackman in top award form), has a less-than adequate consequence for the cowboys involved--especially for her fellow prostitutes led by Strawberry Alice (Frances Fisher). Thus, this group of women will look outside of the law (since it's done nothing for them and their mutilated cohort) in search for "justice."
And so, a word-of-mouth bounty of $1000 is placed on the trails and in the ears of any 'randy' passersby. This promise of a bounty (through a young relative of an old sidekick) will eventually find William Munny (Eastwood), a poor, widowed Kansas pig farmer trying to make ends meet for his two young children. The "Schofield Kid" (Jaime Woolvett) has heard, in passed down tales, that Munny was one of the most cold-blooded bounty hunters there ever was. A "... known thief and murderer, a man of notoriously vicious and intemperate disposition" that he surmises would be an asset to have for the quest ahead.
The others that will come to regret their involvement will include Ned Logan (the always great Morgan Freeman) as William's longtime friend and partner, and English Bob (the late Richard Harris) as the colorful, haughty gun-for-hire that also comes looking to collect. 'Unforgiven', besides bringing together a marvelous cast of lead and character actors together, has an absolutely splendid screenplay written by David Webb Peoples. It is quite a feat of elegant writing that can debunk the Western myths, as it does, but still come off heroic.
Clint knew that when he obtained the rights many years prior. It's to his credit that he recognized it as such and was smart enough to hold on to it until he was the right age and maturity to bring it off as actor and director. William Munny is both very close and far aways from his earlier 'Man With No Name' character. If anything, he is the summation of him. His being is of a troubled man, one that was 'turned' from drink and violence years ago by the love of a good woman (she's only hauntingly referred to in the prologue/epilogue). A struggling man looking to avoid poverty (for his kids) and damnation (for his past deeds), only to find he can't have both. He'll learn that the cost of violence, to twist a phrase by Mark Twain, "cannot compromise for less than 100 cents on the dollar and its debts never outlaw."
'Unforgiven', by rides end, will attest to all of that. And, it will sharply come back on itself. Little Bill, a good man gone bad, will have us pulling for that reformed bad man to take up the drink again and summon back the demon. Violence and revenge, without an 'Undo' command. At the climactic moment, in one of the best and simplest exchanges of the film, the essence of this becomes clear: Little Bill says, "I'll see you in Hell, William Munny." To which Munny knowingly replies, "Yeah."
Another interesting aspect of the story is that none of the main male characters is what he first seems. Note the changes each character goes through by story's end. None of the men presented are black or white--just a soul-robbing gray. Cinematographer Jack N. Green does an equally beautiful job etching an great visual canvas for a story told mostly in the contrast of shadows and highlights. This film won four deserved '92 Academy Awards (Picture, Supporting Actor, Director, and Film Editing). Finally, this second-edition DVD offers an all new digital transfer, a good commentary track by film critic Richard Schickel, and a nice set of featurette and documentary extras. Also included is a vintage episode of 'Maverick' with Clint guest starring--an interesting, light counterpoint to the movie. This is one of the most grim and dusky Best Picture winners ever (and only the third Western in film history to do so). But, it's also Eastwood's Dark Masterpiece.
The plot is well covered by other reviewers. A ... Read more