DIRECTOR: CLINT EASTWOOD
WRITER: DAVID WEBB PEOPLES
THE BOTTOM LINE: A majestic, misanthropic western finds the movies' flintiest icon musing on his own legend.
In a Chicago video store last year, a teenager saw a cassette for The Rookie and said, "Look! The new Charlie Sheen movie!" That Sheen was billed below Clint Eastwood, who also directed the film, mattered not to this youth. Clint, long past his popular prime, was as old and irrelevant as Gary Cooper, Tom Mix, Methuselah. To many moviegoers, Eastwood, 62, has become the character he played in Sergio Leone's westerns 25 (and a million) years ago: the "Man with No Name."
All right then. If the young won't respect a living legend, a man has to tend to it himself. Unforgiven, Eastwood's first western since Pale Rider in 1985, is a dark, passionate drama with good guys so twisted and bad guys so persuasive that virtue and villainy become two views of the same soul. But it is also Eastwood's meditation on age, repute, courage, heroism -- on all those / burdens he has been carrying with such good grace for decades. On Clintessence.
Will Munny (Eastwood) is a gunfighter trying to escape the lure of notoriety. He's certainly lost the hang of it after years in retirement. He can't shoot straight or stay on a horse. And he is eager to dispel anyone's illusions of outlaw grandeur. In his prime he killed women and children; hell, he "killed just about everything that walks and crawls." And was he ever scared? "I can't remember. I was drunk most of the time."
Whatever he was -- Will, Clint -- he now sees his star in eclipse; "I ain't different from anybody else no more." So why is he riding into town with an old partner (Morgan Freeman) to go up against a tough sheriff (Gene Hackman) and collect the bounty on a couple of cowpokes who slashed a prostitute? He says it's for the money. But it's really because a man's job is his life. Will shoots people. Clint shoots westerns.
A revisionist western. Unforgiven questions the rules of a macho genre, summing up and maybe atoning for the flinty violence that made Eastwood famous. Frontier life was no idyll; it was filth and boredom punctuated by dumb gunplay. Manhood: why, that's just male vanity, and women can be mutilated for mocking it. The idea of straight shooting as an earnest of heroism -- that's bunk too; it was mostly drunks killing drunks. Unforgiven even gets you musing about death in the movies. "It's a hell of a thing, killin' a man," Will tells a young hombre (Jaimz Woolvett). "You take away all he's got, and all he's ever gonna." The punk says, "I guess he had it comin'," and Will replies, "We all have it comin'."
This old man's misanthropy -- the raging of this King Lear of cowboys -- is played out against a backdrop of handsome autumn sunsets. But Eastwood knows that his face, profiled against the gray plains sky, is one of the movies' great monuments. He also knows how to dynamite that monument. The movie takes its time letting you watch Clint turn into Clint. And when he does, it's not thrilling but scary. At the end he threatens to "come back and kill everyone." Behind him, lightning illuminates an American flag and underlines the film's dour message: the world's stalwart policeman can easily become the world's nastiest killer.