Twenty years after Unforgiven won the Academy Award for Best Picture, director Clint Eastwood’s pensive western holds up as a reasonably good film. Warner Home Video has reissued the film as a 20th Anniversary Edition. While this seems appropriate given the film’s reputation, Warner has done a disservice to fans by reusing the same transfer and audio mix found on the previous Blu-ray edition.
Unforgiven has many strengths, the most obvious being its cast. Eastwood delivers a restrained performance as Will Munny, a man struggling to come to terms with his violent past. Morgan Freeman brings a similarly understated gravity to Ned Logan, Munny’s longtime friend. Rewarded with an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, Gene Hackman portrays Little Bill Daggett, sheriff of Big Whiskey, Wyoming, where the story is set. Hackman creates a ruthlessly cold-hearted villain – arguably one dimensional, but memorable nonetheless. Smaller roles handled by Frances Fisher, Saul Rubinek, and Richard Harris add considerably to the overall excellence of the cast.
Munny and Logan are reunited after they agree to track down and kill the men responsible for the savage beating of a prostitute in Big Whiskey. Both men are now farmers, having given up gunslinging years ago. But there’s something about this brutal assault against a woman, portrayed in unflinching detail early in the film, which triggers a deeply sympathetic response. Munny feels that serving these men justice might help him repent for his formerly wicked ways. Little Bill let the perpetrators off easy, asking only for several of their horses to be given to the town. No restitution is due to the brothel or the victim herself.
There isn’t much action in Unforgiven, which takes a very leisurely approach to telling its simple story. At 131 minutes, it could even be argued that the film is a tad overlong. As a character study, the film doesn’t quite provide enough depth and exploration to justify its length. Eastwood and screenwriter David Webb Peoples took the meditative route, allowing the viewer to slowly understand Munny’s relationship with violence. His deceased wife helped him kick his dual bad habits of alcohol and murder, but Munny feels the weight of his mean-spirited past in everything he does. While there isn’t much to the plot when all is said and done, Unforgiven is a meticulously crafted portrait of world-weary men trying very hard to do the right thing. The journey moves slowly, but it’s well worth taking.
Unforgiven has not been remastered since its 2006 Blu-ray debut. The 1080p image shows its age and really deserved an upgrade. After all, this is a 20th anniversary edition and Warner chose to reuse a nearly six year old transfer. The picture quality is still acceptable, though there are frequent specs and spots that pop up throughout. Though relatively minor, they remind us that the film could look better. Black levels are deep, but crush becomes an issue. Much of Unforgiven plays out under low light, which compromises detail significantly in many scenes. Sharpness is lacking at times, particularly in wide shots.
Also dated is the lossy Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack. Though dialogue is clean and crisp, overall the mix lacks punch. The shoot-outs don’t sound as enveloping as they probably could and LFE action is light. Some of the atmospheric ambiance has a thin, tinny sound. By no means is Unforgiven unlistenable on Blu-ray. However, it remains highly disappointing that Warner didn’t see fit to give the whole thing an overhaul for its two-decade anniversary.
Nothing exclusive is included in the way of supplemental material. The same standard definition features found here are sourced from the old DVD special edition. Four documentaries, two focusing on the making of Unforgiven and two focused on Eastwood’s career in general, provide lots of viewing material. “Eastwood on Eastwood” is a solidly produced featurette, but the making-ofs are mostly self-congratulatory puff pieces. The best supplement is the well-researched commentary by film critic and Eastwood biographer Richard Schickel. An old episode of Maverick featuring an appearance by Eastwood is included as well.