If the fact that the first film I chose for this whole Film Friday theme did not make it obvious, I’ve recently become a sucker for good ol’ American Westerns. In my creative writing class this week, one my students submitted a short story written in the Western genre, complete with cowpokes, brothels, town drunks and enigmatic gunslingers, and I was hooked. It is a ballsy thing to write a Western – you have to play to certain conventions without stereotyping, develop characters while leaving plenty of room for mystery and audience interpretation, and establish a sense of order while creating an environment that is defined by its capacity for chaos. I don’t know if I’ll ever attempt it myself – too formidable – but I do agree with those who say that the Western is the true, original creation of America (unless you count the often uncredited inspiration from Japan’s famous samurai tales). It has a pace, a tone and an atmosphere all its own, not to mention characters with so much unspoken emotion boiling under the surface that Hemingway’s “Code Heroes” would blush from their own loquaciousness.
One of the greatest Westerns I have seen in recent years is Clint Eastwood’s 1992 Academy Award-winning Unforgiven. What makes this movie work is that, like all good Westerns, it is primarily character-driven, and allows the tension to build not from some fiendish plot or strange twist of fate, but by way of a smoldering sense of greed and a contagious desire for revenge. Unlike some more famous Western plots (many involving Eastwood), while the main character in Unforgiven is a stranger to some of the other characters, he is not a stranger to the audience – we know William Munny and sympathize with his desire to care for his children despite being unable to shake an impulse to return to the work that once defined him: “killing.”
There are numerous reasons to see this film, even if you are not a fan of the Western genre, but here are five specific reasons:
#2 – The assembled cast is fantastic – a lot of skill being brought to these characters, especially from Gene Hackman (who won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role as the violent town sheriff) Richard Harris, Morgan Freeman and Eastwood himself.
#3 – The themes explored – that of atonement, rehabilitation, fallenness, justification, redemption and, most specifically, how our sins and evil nature can follow us for years.
#4 – The simplicity. I could write this about every Western, because it is a key aspect of the genre, but what makes Unforgiven work so well is that while the themes are complex, the story is rather simple. There’s no need for plot twists and complex schemes.
#5 – The scene in the jail, between Hackman, Harris and Saul Rubinek. Fascinating and intense!