The thing is, there are no fireworks, at least not for quite a while, and that makes the film one of the best (and necessarily last) Westerns of the genre. Most of the plot focuses on the dreary, ordinary complications and frustrations of pioneer life. Eastwood takes the romance out of the mythology of the American Cowboy Gunfighter with great enthusiasm. The film is the antidote to the likes of John Wayne’s The Searchers. Munny and Logan realize while telling their stories of the good old days to The Schofield Kid that everything they did was because they were drunk. They were just lucky enough to survive it. Many men like them did not.
As great as the script and cinematography are (they are both unassailable), the real magic of Unforgiven is in the performances. No one misses a beat, from Frances Fisher as Strawberry Alice, the madam at the brothel, to an electric delivery of Little Bill by Gene Hackman. Little Bill would probably not consider himself elemental evil, but the casually dismissive way he dispenses his brand of violent frontier justice makes it bone-chillingly clear that he is, in fact, downright malevolent. Hackman’s performance is the best of his career.
For Morgan Freeman, this role, paired with his work in The Shawshank Redemption, rank among the finest acting ever to grace a screen and definitely show him at the top of his game. Eastwood gives a nuanced and versatile performance as Munny, which ramps up in a slow burn toward the raucous finale. The genius in this role is what he does not do. Audiences spent decades watching Eastwood as the laconic, seemingly invincible cowboy, and he dispels that character immediately when he slips in pig s**t trying to wrangle an uncooperative hog. Waiting for that mythical figure is to wait for Godot. He may make an appearance but don’t hold your breath.
With Unforgiven as a template, the deconstruction of the American Old West myth that glamorized the genocide of Manifest Destiny has become so pervasive now that it’s almost a genre unto itself. Eastwood and Peoples were there first. We have seen some excellent Westerns of late, with News of the World and The Harder They Fall coming to mind. There are others, but they all have used the old Western cliche as a jumping-off point and taken it somewhere new. This is the last serious film to take a hard look at the American Cowboy as the white savior of the Old West. Eastwood drags that wrinkly old bastard out into the middle of a dusty street and guns him down with very little ceremony.
"…the deconstruction of the American Old West myth..."