Unforgiven: a film review

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Clint Eastwood’s modern classic (winner of four Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director) Unforgiven takes place in the small town of Big Whiskey, where the women of the local brothel (featuring Frances Fisher as sass-mouthed and practical Strawberry Alice, and Anna Thomson as sweet-faced blonde Delilah) put a bounty on two cowboys who slashed a whore’s face. Eastwood and Morgan Freeman star as retired gunmen going after the bounty, and Gene Hackman won an Oscar as the local lawman with a nasty grin and a taste for violence.
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.

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