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No Sacred Cows  
Toby Young
Monday 27th July 2009

The Unforgiven

It had to happen. First there was the feminist action film—‘Aliens’. Then there was the feminist road movie—‘Thelma and Louise’. It was only a matter of time before the first feminist Western. But who would have thought it would be directed by Clint Eastwood?

The Unforgiven (15) begins with a brutal knife attack on a defenceless prostitute, a crime which forms the moral focal point of the film. Everyone connected with this act—not just the knifeman—has to be punished. Even an innocent bystander is gunned down—for no other reason than failing to intervene to prevent it.

Eastwood plays William Munny, a hellraiser reformed by the love of a good woman, who reluctantly comes out of retirement to avenge the attack on the whore. The whole tone of ‘The Unforgiven’ is anti-macho: the voilence, when it comes, is shot in an explicit, totally unglamourous way.

But it would be too easy to criticise Eastwood for having made a politically correct Western. There is so much to enjoy in ‘The Unforgiven’ that it’s possible to forgive its trendy, simple-minded morality.

Eastwood has aged cinematically—his once beautiful face has been whipped and beaten into a mask of suffering, leaving him with a pinched, almost pitiful, vulnerability. In the process he has been transformed from an icon into an actor.

Gene Hackman is always better when he’s playing sleazy characters and he brings a twisted rightousness to Little Bill, the corrupt sherrif of Big Whiskey. Morgan Freeman is less impressive as Ned, Eastwood’s old partner, but he is such a dignified actor he brings authority to whatever he does. Even Richard Harris turns in a respectable performance as English Bob, a cadaverous gunman exposed as a fraud.

But it is Eastwood the director who is the real star of this film. In ‘Magnum Force’ Eastwood reproves Hal Holbrook for having too high an estimation of his own abilities: “A man’s got to know his limitations.” Eastwood the director has got to know his limitations.

There’s nothing flashy about ‘The Unforgiven’—it’s a beautifully crafted picture, slow without being boring. Its stately pace speaks of a confidence which his work has lacked until now. Eastwood has been reaching for this mythic, elegiac quality ever since ‘The Outlaw Josey Wales’ and in ‘The Unforgiven’ he’s finally achieved it.

The Mail on Sunday, September 20, 1992

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