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.