Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #105
Director: Clint Eastwood
Starring: Clint Eastwood and Gene Hackman
Clint Eastwood earned his first Oscars for Unforgiven, a Western that owes as much to early American entries to the canon like Shane as it does the spaghetti westerns that serve so obviously as the film's chief influence. Clint took home gold statuettes for directing and Best Picture, and Gene Hackman won Best Supporting Actor. It also picked up an award for Best Editing and was nominated in five more categories, making it (unofficially) the most-loved Western in Academy Awards history. Symbolically, Unforgiven represents Eastwood acknowledging and paying tribute to his past, making a great Western to pick up all the critical acclaim that eluded his early masterpieces in the genre, both as a director and in collaboration with Sergio Leone.
Unforgiven has been called all kinds of pretentious things, but most of all some kind of exposure of the true Old West that doesn't shy away from reality or darkness. Well, okay, it is, but so was Once Upon a Time in the West off the top of my head and probably a half dozen other, earlier movies. So we're going to throw the idea that Unforgiven was revolutionary in some way out the window right now and just talk about it as a Western and as a movie. After a brilliantly shot and fast-paced opening scene in which a prostitute gets her face cut up by a flustered customer, the movie slows down considerably as we get to know the sheriff of the town where the abuse occurs (played by Hackman, who earns his award) and the men who aim to collect the bounty the prostitutes have put on their assailant (a trio comprised of Eastwood, Morgan Freeman, and Jaimz Woolvett). Other interesting characters come and go as well – in particular, Richard Harris's English Bob is fascinating, if a bit superfluous – but the movie is all about the mounting tension between the protagonists and the sheriff, culminating in the requisite gunfight between the two parties. This film's gunfight doesn't fit the mold of honorable combat to determine who is the quickest draw, though. Without spoiling the ending, the movie gets a lot of its "this isn't your typical Western" praise from the shootout that occurs in the final ten minutes of film.
Clint Eastwood's career is endlessly impressive, and his filmography just keeps growing and gaining new masterpieces, but in a lot of ways, he truly became the beloved director that he is today with Unforgiven. He was the Man With No Name and Dirty Harry and Josey Wales before this, but he wasn't regarded as the matchless auteur that he is now. So many of the camera techniques and visual plot devices that have come to define his work began here, or at least were perfected here. It's not to say he didn't direct any great movies before this – I might even prefer The Outlaw Josey Wales over Unforgiven – but the Academy started paying attention at the right time. As a director, this may well be his masterpiece.
The Good: For Westerns I typically think first on cinematography, but here it has to be a tie between the huge ensemble of stars that offers so many great performances and the fact that Eastwood truly became Clint Eastwood, Director with this film.
The Bad: Jaimz Woolvett hasn't done much notable work besides Unforgiven. There's a reason for that.
The Skinny: Deserves its spot.