A retired gunman, trying to raise his motherless children on a scratchy old farm is approached for 'one last job' and the promise of a cash bounty. Will this job claim more than just his empty promises of reformation...
IF UNFORGIVEN REALLY PROVES TO BE Clint Eastwood's last Western, it's a grand one to ride out on — dark, gripping and embracing complex themes, with Eastwood playing weather-beaten William Munny, a one-time killer reformed by the love of a good woman. She's died, leaving him struggling to raise two children on a failing farm, when a young punk turns up with the promise of bounty for the vengeance slaying of two cowboys who mutilated a prostitute, an offer which Munny accepts with, misgivings. With his old sidekick Ned (Freeman) making up the trio, they head for bleak Big Whiskey, where the brutal sheriff (Hackman) is somewhat indifferent to the women's demands for justice.
Meanwhile, Richard Harris appears as a flamboyant hired killer, English Bob, to take up the prostitutes' reward himself. Bob is travelling with his own biographer in tow, one of those Eastern journalists who transformed some of the scum of the earth into the libertarian outlaw heroes of penny dreadful novellas.
And it is here that the film is at its most fascinating in its revisionist approach to the myths of the Old West, of dashing desperados and daring deeds juxtaposed with the realities as recalled by Munny and Ned, with the discomfort of sleeping on the trail, the misery of riding through rain, the ugly actuality of shooting a man, preferably when he's down. In another sharp contrast, the settings are gorgeous (Alberta, Canada, spectacularly doubling for the Midwestern frontier), while the film is punctuated with grim scenes of horror, from the slashing of the young prostitute to the inevitable last showdown.
Altogether, this is as fine a piece of craftsmanship as one could expect of Eastwood, with Hackman and I Freeman's performances standing out, and given the sombre tone there are entertaining surprises and even some good laughs to be had.
Ironically, however, the element that gives most pause is Eastwood's own problematic character : Munny's pious utterances, his insistence that "I ain't like that any more," and his professed loss of appetite for killing never really ringing true. And when he is eventually roused to blood rage, the result is precisely what one has been waiting for with inappropriate anticipation, with Munny becoming an amalgam of all the violent avenging riders Eastwood has presented us with in the past. Nevertheless, this is a must-see if one cares whither the Western, and an extremely satisfying one for all Eastwood fans
Ironically, the ultimate Western of all was made decades after its hayday. This is captivating for all, not just fans of the genre.