NEW YORK — WESTERNS are dead, the experts tell us - and keep on telling us, no matter how many Wild West epics ride into town and do blazing business at the box office.
But they apparently haven't told Clint Eastwood, whose new "Unforgiven" is a western with classic ingredients, pitting a lonesome hero against an evil sheriff in an isolated frontier town.
As producer and director of the picture, Mr. Eastwood brings a few modern-day concerns into play, including the corrupting influence of male dominance over women. Yet this is no "revisionist" western using a bygone setting merely as a vehicle for contemporary statements. It's a proud heir to the time-tested western legacy, as authentic and old-fashioned as the spurs that jingle on the good guy's heels.
"Unforgiven" begins in a Wyoming town called Big Whisky, where a couple of drunken cowpunchers brutally assault a helpless prostitute. This causes heated argument over how much compensation is due the owner of the brothel; nobody seems concerned about the victim. Furious at the town that ignores them, and the sheriff who refuses to give them justice, she and other prostitutes scrape together a $1,000 reward for anyone who'll kill the men responsible. Enter William Munny, a former desperado, who needs the
bounty to renovate his pig farm and give his children a better life.
It's been many years since Munny rode a horse or shot a gun, and he can hardly stay balanced in the saddle as he sets off on the Big Whisky trail. But he's determined, and so are his partners: a wannabe gunfighter who's inexperienced and nearsighted, and an aging sidekick who's grown too sensible to want this kind of adventure in his life anymore.
"Unforgiven" could be called a parable about prostitution in many forms. The aptly named Munny is tempted back to gun-toting by the cash; his younger partner is equally mesmerized by the prospect of power and fame. Another character is a writer of cheap novels, who chronicles the West by cozying up to any gunslinger who'll provide enough lies and boasting to fill a chapter.
Surrounded by folks like these, the prostitutes in the brothel are convincingly seen as victims of male oppression; true to this insight, Eastwood often films them in low-angle shots that recall the heroic portraits of frontier women in John Ford's masterful westerns. They don't play a large part in the story, so this can hardly be called a feminist movie. Still, it's clear that Eastwood's sympathy for them is real.
"Unforgiven" plays out its drama with enough old-fashioned sobriety to lend the proceedings a classical air, offering the comfort of familiarity rather than the thrill of discovery. It also incorporates enough latter-day cynicism, though, to comply with contemporary Hollywood fashion. Munny bravely defeats the evil sheriff, but he also blazes away at an unarmed man at the sheriff's side - claiming moral indignation as his reason, but clearly driven by anger and machismo, as well.
The film's tone is one of straight-on drama tempered by a streak of skepticism toward the black-and-white ethics of old westerns. This skepticism is reflected in the language of David Webb Peoples's screenplay, peppered with ironic references to the arch conventions of "correct" western dialogue and narration.
Also interesting in the screenplay is its lack of reference to the African-American character's race. This allows him to function as a fully rounded character without carrying the burden of racial issues; yet it raises the question of why racial problems are not addressed in any context, such as the obviously relevant one of bigotry against native Americans.
As usual in movies directed by Eastwood, his filmmaking here is imaginative and sophisticated, while his acting is more adequate than inspired - and less than adequate at times, as in a few misconceived moments of slapstick.
The cinematography, by Jack N. Green, is varied and expressive without lapsing into pictorialism or overstatement; ditto for Henry Bumstead's production design. The performances, aside from Eastwood's own, are excellent. Special praise goes to Gene Hackman as the sheriff, Morgan Freeman as the old sidekick, Saul Rubinek as the dimestore novelist, and Richard Harris as the villain of a subplot that seems tacked onto the rest of the movie.
Also in the good cast are Jaimz Woolvett as the hero's young partner, and Anna Thomson and Frances Fisher as the injured prostitute and her helpful friend. Lennie Niehaus wrote the music for the picture, which was filmed primarily in the beautiful terrain of Alberta, Canada. Rated R; contains violence, sex, rough language.