It had to happen. First there was the feminist action filmāāAliensā. Then there was the feminist road movieāāThelma and Louiseā. 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 actānot just the knifemanāhas to be punished. Even an innocent bystander is gunned downāfor 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 āThe Unforgivenā 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 āThe Unforgivenā that itās possible to forgive its trendy, simple-minded morality.
Eastwood has aged cinematicallyāhis 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 heās 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, Eastwoodās 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 āMagnum Forceā Eastwood reproves Hal Holbrook for having too high an estimation of his own abilities: āA manās got to know his limitations.ā Eastwood the director has got to know his limitations.
Thereās nothing flashy about āThe Unforgivenāāitās 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 āThe Outlaw Josey Walesā and in āThe Unforgivenā heās finally achieved it.