One of the things I pride myself on is having outgrown best-of lists. When I was a teenager and people asked me to name my favorite movie, though, my quick answer was usually "Unforgiven," the Clint Eastwood Oscar-winner about an aging, widowed gunfighter who mounts the saddle again to hunt down the men who slashed a prostitute's face.
At the time, the movie swept me away with its grim, fatalistic take on the Old West. Certainly, it came along at the right time. It opened a few weeks before I turned 13, an age when many boys crave gutty realism, and when I proclaimed it my favorite film, I felt a tinge of pride that I had made such a sophisticated — and, not coincidentally, R-rated — choice.
When I saw that the Newport Beach Film Festival planned to show a Japanese remake of the film this month, however, I was struck by the realization that I hadn't actually seen the original in years. Would it hold up more than two decades after its release? Or, as with so many things that I swore by in adolescence, would I find that my perception of it had changed?
Curious, I re-watched the film on DVD and found that the latter was true. Many of the qualities that impressed me years ago — the earthy acting, unglamorous locales and soul-searching moments — held up admirably. But in trying to fuse an existential message with a standard action-movie plot, the film showed itself to be more of a Hollywood concoction than I understood at the time.
For those who need a refresher, "Unforgiven" stars Eastwood as William Munny, a once-infamous gunman who has turned to farm and family life after marrying a woman who tempered his darker impulses. After two cowboys assault a prostitute in the amusingly named town of Big Whiskey, Wyo., a nearsighted upstart named the Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett) asks Munny to help him track down and kill the men, who now have a handsome price on their heads.
The pair becomes a trio when Munny's old comrade, Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman), comes on board, and on the trail to Big Whiskey, the three men confront their varied feelings about killing. Munny, who swears off alcohol, credits many of his younger indiscretions to drink, while the Schofield Kid, originally a braggart who boasts about having slain five men, ultimately reveals himself as a fraud when he breaks down after shooting one. (You should stop reading now if you want to avoid spoilers, but I feel content giving away the ending of a 22-year-old film.)
For the first two hours, "Unforgiven" holds an admirably unromantic view of Western storytelling tropes, and that skeptical tone, I think, is what most impressed critics upon its release. Roger Ebert called it "a movie about how, when you kill someone, they're really dead," while Entertainment Weekly wrote that the screenplay "insists that the West was never about Heroes and Villains until tamed by audiences back East."
But is that really what the film insists? At times, it seems to, and never more than in the monologue that the Schofield Kid delivers upon slaying the wanted cowboy. (In a realistically mundane touch, he shoots him on the toilet.) The Kid's tearful words as he nurses the whiskey bottle, stammering in wonder about how his target "ain't gonna never breathe again, ever," bring the theme about the consequences of violence full-circle, and I'm astonished now, as I was two decades ago, that this scene didn't net Woolvett an Oscar nomination.
Then Munny and the Kid receive the news that Logan has been slain by the film's antagonist, Big Whiskey's sheriff, Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman) — and at this point, "Unforgiven" sheds its moral ambiguity and heads for a typical showdown climax. The battle lines are drawn clearly: Logan, who has had an avuncular presence throughout, is sadistically whipped to death by Daggett, and the sheriff proves vicious enough to display his corpse on the sidewalk. And so Munny takes a few swigs of whiskey, leaves his wife's lessons behind and goes out to do what a man's gotta do.
The scene that follows is almost cartoonish. Munny arrives in Big Whiskey and faces down Daggett and his cronies, who are handicapped by the Hollywood maxim that no villains, whether Nazis or Stormtroopers or sheriff's deputies, can shoot straight unless the plot requires it. After Munny polishes them off singlehandedly from a few yards away, he rides off past another group of would-be snipers, who find themselves so in awe that they can't pull the trigger, even though any of them could easily shoot him in the back as he departs.
Does the movie intend us to disapprove of Munny's rampage? Some of the earlier dialogue invites that interpretation. Does it want us to be ambivalent? Fair enough. But after two hours of carefully removing the sheen from Western movie mythology, why end on a scene in which the hero — who can barely mount a horse at the start of the film — suddenly becomes as vulnerable as Rambo?
The Japanese remake, which will screen April 28 at the Edwards Big Newport 6 theater in Fashion Island, copies the original virtually scene for scene. It's a remake in the fullest sense of the word. Most of the strengths and flaws of the 1992 version apply here. The ending, though, adds a subtle narrative touch that casts the final shootout in a different light — and makes the film as a whole slightly more moving.
Lacking that extra twist, the original "Unforgiven" plays essentially as a revenge tale, with the ultimate message that under the right circumstances, an eye for an eye is the best solution. That's a message that resonates less and less with me as I grow older. As for my teenage self, I forgive him.
MICHAEL MILLER is the features editor for Times Community News in Orange County. He can be reached at email@example.com or (714) 966-4617.
If You Go
What: "Unforgiven" (2013)
Where: Edwards Big Newport 6, 300 Newport Center Drive, Newport Beach
When: 7:15 p.m. April 28
Cost: $18 for film, $40 for film and after-party
Information: (949) 253-2880 or http://www.newportbeachfilmfest.com