Thoughts on UNFORGIVEN: The Wages of Sin (or Not), Twenty Years Later

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Year after year, I keep returning to Unforgiven, and it’s a movie that I wasn’t initially as high on as everyone else.  I always liked it, but I never found it “transcendent” in the ways that inspired critic Richard Schickel to brand it the greatest Western ever made.  It’s too deliberately understated, and I mean that as a compliment; Clint Eastwood structured his film as an elegy for the genre and not as a grand summation.  I’m just saying that it garnered my respect more than my devotion (unlike The Proposition or Once Upon a Time in the West or Stagecoach, all of which I would die for).

Yet Unforgiven maintains a strange hold on me, and I’ve only recently understood why.  Eastwood himself is the X-Factor; his Will Munny is one of the great Western protagonists (antagonists) because he remains so elusive within the narrative.

Every other character fits into Unforgiven‘s fatalistically lived-in world.  Gene Hackman’s genially psychotic lawman, Richard Harris’ attention-seeking gunman, Frances Fisher’s no-bull prostitute, Morgan Freeman’s weary sidekick: for good or ill, they’ve embraced what makes them human, and they reflect the landscape as organically as the mud covering Munny’s hog farm or the snow that falls just before the climactic shootout (even Jaimz Woolvett’s Schofield Kid knows his place, despite his tough-guy affectations to the contrary.  One look at real blood and death reveals the scared kid he’ll be for the rest of his life).

Munny, on the other hand, stands apart.  Unforgiven is often (and incorrectly, I might add) viewed as Munny’s transformation story, how he reverts from a penitent farmer into an almost supernaturally gifted assassin.  Problem with that line of thinking is the movie lacks a middle step.  We never seem him rediscovering his violent art; as I wrote in an Unforgiven blog two years ago:

His reformation permeates every atom of his being—being good has made him impotent. Munny can barely shoot, passively suffers a vicious beating at the hands of Gene Hackman’s Little Bill Daggett, and, most literally, refuses a complimentary roll in the hay courtesy of the prostitute whose scarred face sets the plot in motion. Our first good look at Munny—he’s crawling around in the mud, trying valiantly, and failing, to control the livestock in his beyond-hardscrabble pig farm—could not better depict the degradation that the wages of sin, and of redemption, have cost him.

And then Munny gets word that Daggett has murdered Ned Logan, his only real friend and the closest thing Munny has to a conscience, and Munny transforms into the Angel of Death. Strides into Big Whiskey like a spirit. Kills everyone that needs killing without so much as suffering a scratch. Intimidates those still breathing through sheer force of will. And then, vanishes. Maybe back to his farm, maybe to San Francisco, maybe to whatever plane of existence that loosed The Drifter from High Plains Drifter or Preacher from Pale Rider, who knows. Whatever the case, Munny is gone, his last (?) bloody shootout an affirmation of his true nature, of the sins of the Old West…

But there is no in-between. Whatever bridge one might normally expect, Eastwood perversely denies us. One minute, Munny is decrying killing to the battle-shocked Schofield Kid, and the next, he’s coolly savaging six people. We don’t see the progression, the return of one man from another. We see one man. Then we see the other.

This situation speaks to Unforgiven‘s most underrated element: its magical realism.  Despite the grit of his Western world, Eastwood isn’t interested in adhering to mud-and-blood theatrics.  What Unforgiven does, like High Plains Drifter and Pale Rider before it, is to present a godly automaton and watch what happens when the kill switch turns on.

We have, in essence, a new myth.  The business with the mutilated prostitute and the hunt for her attackers is the MacGuffin.  “Now,” says Eastwood, “I bring you the tale of a world borne through death, and what transpires when humanity comes face-to-face with its violent creator.”  Will Munny ultimately sees us the way we regard ants.

Gods are funny like that.

Warner Home Entertainment’s new 20th Anniversary Edition Blu-ray presents me with a slight problem.  Taken on its own, it’s a terrific package; you get an atmospheric, film-like HD transfer with a strong 5.1 Dolby Digital track (it’s not lossless, yes, but it’s still effective) and a meaty assortment of bonus materials, including:

  • Commentary from Time Magazine film critic Richard Schickel
  • Two behind-the-scenes featurettes: All On Accounta Pullin’ a Trigger and Eastwood and Co. – Making Unforgiven
  • Two Eastwood retrospectives: Vintage Eastwood – A Star featurette and the hour-long Eastwood on Eastwood program (the latter is narrated by John Cusack!)
  • The “Duel at Sundown” episode of “Maverick,” where a young Eastwood plays a very Will Munny-esque character
  • Theatrical trailer

These supplements are strong—and the “Maverick” episode alone justifies purchasing the Blu-ray—but they are identical to the bonuses on the already-available Unforgiven Blu-ray.  Strike #2: Warner offers no new upgrades in the A/V department.  The only material unique to this release is the Blu-ray book packaging, which includes cast and crew biographies, movie trivia, a letter from Eastwood, and a longer essay titled “The Story of the Masterpiece.”

This printed information looks sharp—Warner always does a nice job with their Digibook layouts—but I’m not sure if it alone warrants purchasing the 20th Anniversary Edition.  If you own the old Blu-ray, you have the same product (as far as A/V and video-based supplements are concerned), and if you don’t own Unforgiven yet, that previous version costs fifty percent less than this current one.

Bottom line: it’s your call.  For all its ambiguities and intrigues, Unforgiven is a masterpiece, and one of the definitive Western deconstructions.  Find some way to acquire it, whether through this Blu-ray or through another one.

The 20th Anniversary Edition of Unforgiven is now available.  Click HERE for Amazon’s page listing.

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