Clint Eastwood returns to the Old West, playing a former bandit seeking redemption by hunting down the man who disfigured a local prostitute, with the help of his former partner Ned (Morgan Freeman) and ambitious youngster Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett).
The plot bears some resemblance to The Magnificent Seven: a group of hired guns take on a protection job for a group of people who are unable to defend themselves. However, it’s more morally complex than that, with Eastwood’s Will having a kind of counter-redemption arc. At the start of the film he’s turned his back on violence to raise his small children following the death of their mother. By the end he’s back to stone cold killer, permanently changing the face of Big Whisky, where the film takes place.
What elevates it above some of the genre’s more trashy examples is that the characters aren’t super-cowboys who can shoot anything at any distance with any gun. They’re flawed, the miss things, they’re not good with certain types of gun, and they fear death. This is the film’s biggest strength. Its biggest weakness is that there’s not much action in the film, but the plot is quite straightforward too, making it feel longer than its two hour running time.
What results is a solid Western that received a level of acclaim which is, looking back, inexplicable. Of the four Academy Awards it won, the only one that feels justified is Gene Hackman as Little Bill, the town’s sheriff. Eastwood gives one of his better performances, but is still pretty terrible in the lead role, somehow mumbling his way to a nomination for lead actor.
The Unforgiven is not God’s gift to Westerns: it’s more like The Equalizer meets Gran Torino in the Wild West. While that might be enough to make it watchable, and superior to 1995’s The Quick and the Dead in which Hackman plays the same role, it’s not enough to justify the haul of booty it gathered courtesy of the Academy.