Unforgiven, 1992. Directed by Clint Eastwood. Clint Eastwood, Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman, Richard Harris, Francis Fisher,

When this coda to Clint Eastwood's career as a western movie star came out in 1992, I remember being struck by the fact that it was the one great movie of the 1990s. In the years since then, I have not had cause to retract that statement. It is still the best movie of the decade and its stature seems to grow with each passing year. It may very well be the finest western anyone has ever made. It is certainly the only other western to stand with the great films of John Ford and Howard Hawks and it is the only "revisionist" western to transcend the critique of genre in which such exercises often indulge. This is a great film. But why is it a great film? Unforgiven tells the story of a reformed gunslinger convinced to go on one last killing to save his family's farm. During the course of the film, he slowly slips from his position as a good man as he is drawn farther and farther into the life he thought he had left behind. On the surface, it is not significantly different in tone and worldview from the other three westerns Eastwood has directed. It bookends the others­High Plains Drifter and Pale Rider mirror each other, one about vengeance with a whiff of brimstone, the other about angelic vengeance; The Outlaw Josey Wales concerns a bad man who finds redemption, Unforgiven is about a bad man redeemed who loses his state of grace. It is interesting that Unforgiven is the final word on the subject. It stands as a dire warning, a sermon on the order of Jonathan Edwards's Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God or Flannery O'Connor's "The Lame Shall Enter First" or "Revelation." Here is where it differs from, say, The Player or The Crying Game, both released the same year and topping many of 1992's critics polls: Unforgiven deals in universals. It is not interested in ephemeral politics or social critique, but rather turns its gaze on mankind's state of grace in the universe and finds it wanting. Not that it is averse to critiquing its own idiom. Here, it also sings. It is one of those rare movies which taints all of the movies in its genre with its worldview. It is a film which razes the infrastructure of the western to the ground and sows salt in the soil. It is a film which presents a brutal condemnation of violence. But mostly, it is a condemnation of sin­not a particularly trendy subject in this day and age­and as a condemnation of sin, it attains its own spiritual state of grace even as it denys grace to its characters and to the audience. The end of Unforgiven has a bitterly ironic coda which, taken out of context, might be mistaken for a happy ending. But the audience knows better. Eastwood's William Munney is damned. As are we all.


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