Upending the moral certainty at the heart of traditional Westerns, Unforgiven dwells on the doubt and pain that come with vengeance, and the terrible toll that murder takes on the killer. The deaths here are neither the stylized, bloodless killings nor the elaborate, lingering death scenes so common to our film vocabulary; in this place, death is prosaic, mundane, profoundly ugly.
Though Westerns often tell tales of bold youth, this is a film of aging men, the light touching every etched valley of their tense faces. That’s fitting: the whole film is a goodbye, both inside and out. The characters are watching the frontier vanish; their world is rapidly being consumed and converted to legend (as evidenced by the pulp writer in their midst). And, of course, Eastwood’s film is a bittersweet rumination on the Western itself, a once-beloved cinematic form now all but extinct.