On Aug. 3, 1992, Warner Bros. premiered Clint Eastwood’s R-rated Western Unforgiven. The film went on to win four Oscars, including best picture and director honors, at the 65th Academy Awards. The Hollywood Reporter’s original review is below:
A pig farmer with two young mouths to feed and his swine dying of the fever has got to put some food back on the table. With his wife dead and the moral beacon she shown for him faded, he’s easy pickings for going back to his old ways, in this hard case, to gun down a couple of woman-brutalizing cowboys and cash in on a bounty. That’s the laid-bare story line of Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, a flinty, unflinching shot at the Old West and all the pulpish, dimestore-novel notions of frontier bravery, outlaw killing and riding the moral high plain.
With the squinty calm of an old pro, Eastwood has scoped the big notion sites of the Old West and shot asunder Americana myths, namely the romanticism of killing. Unforgiven is both a dark look into a bad man’s soul and a hard reckoning over a growing country’s bloody innards. Like a shooter whose skill allows him to take careful aim with a rifle rather than going for the easy splatter of a buckshot, director Eastwood’s big picture is suredly calibrated: He points your eye to the tiniest specs, the most telling and powerful parts of this moral panorama.
No feel-good movie — though it is coarsed with gusty humor and against-the-grain grandeur — Unforgiven gives no quarter to sticking scared to the box-office trail. It won’t garner the whoops-and-hollers of those whose systems only tolerate basic, market-driven pablum. Still, critical acclaim as well as Eastwood’s own box-office popularity should guarantee a solid, end-of-summer, box-office trail for Warner Bros. You’ll hear, perhaps, a more resounding salvo around the next bend when the European market, more appreciative of Eastwood’s directorial skills and ever eager to see the dark side of Americana, gets a glimpse.
There’s no point in gussying up the story, plotwise, that is: Widower-farmer Bill Munny (Eastwood), a former hired killer and dead-drunk lout, gets lassoed in by a fast-talking gunslinger (Jaimz Woolvett) to gun down two bad guys who carved up a whorehouse woman. Munny’s no longer exactly tall in the saddle when it comes to killing skills, and he ropes in his former partner (Morgan Freeman) to join up.
The three head up to Big Whiskey, Wyo., where a smart and ornery sheriff (Gene Hackman) parcels out the law. He’s a latter-day gun-control fanatic — no firearms allowed in Big Whiskey, period. Yup, we’re riding for a showdown here, folks. But it’s the ride itself that’s the real gunpowder here: Screenwriter David Webb Peoples’ (Blade Runner) yarn is the psychological-moral journey of a desperate man who reverts back to the killer he once was.
While not a pretty picture — no ride-into-the-sunset cliches — Unforgiven is a magnificently realized work. In addition to Eastwood’s fine, rough performance, Hackman and Freeman stand out.
Under Eastwood’s deliberately assured guidance, Unforgiven shimmers with dark majesties, a fitting tribute to his mentors Don Siegel and Sergio Leone, to whom the film is dedicated. Lennie Niehaus‘ spare-plucked score, with its winding cadence, and Jack Green’s wide-screen lensing, with its jolting scopes, are the high points of the film’s many resonances. — Duane Byrge, originally published on July 31, 1992