Quintessential revisionist western “Unforgiven” holds up well

For the month of May, Music Box theater at 3733 North Southport is screening a series of unconventional Westerns in a partnership with the DePaul University School of Cinematic Arts. The movies being shown are far from the romanticized depictions of the west in films such as “Once Upon a Time in the West” and “True Grit,” but Music Box has instead opted to show Westerns that challenge every trope of gunslinging cowboys riding off into the sunset. These screenings are free for DePaul students and happen on Sundays and Tuesdays this month.

“Hell on the Homestead,” a series of revisionist Westerns which aim to depict the cruel American frontier and the people who made livings there, kicked off last night with a showing  of 1992’s Best Picture winner “Unforgiven ” on a beautiful 35mm print. “Unforgiven” follows William Munny, a retired gunslinger living on an isolated farm with his children. Munny, played by the film’s director Clint Eastwood, is a man trying to put his violent past behind him and raise his family. After two thugs cut up a prostitute, her friends and coworkers place a $1,000 bounty on the men’s heads. A brash young man who calls himself “The Schofield Kid,” played by Jaimz Woolvett, comes to Munny’s farm to ask for his help collecting the bounty. Munny is apprehensive but agrees and brings his old partner and deadeye marksman Ned Logan, played by Morgan Freeman, along to assist him and the Kid in bringing the men in. Munny and his companions quickly come into conflict with the sheriff of the prostitute’s town Little Bill Daggett, played by the amazing Gene Hackman. Little Bill fears that the killers and gunslingers attracted to his town by the prostitutes’ bounty will disrupt his iron grip on the community. Munny finds himself falling back to his savage ways in the men’s attempt to collect the bounty. Despite his efforts to settle down and raise a family, he is still the brutal cold-blooded cowboy he has always been.

“Unforgiven” is a true revisionist Western. Starting in the late 1960s to early 1970s filmmakers began to make darker Westerns that deconstructed the mythos of the American west and heroic cowboys. These movies depicted the west as harsh and unforgiving, and showed the men who made their living here to be no different. The days of John Wayne and the man in the white hat were over, replaced by morally ambiguous anti-heroes who killed indiscriminately.

One of the most creative ways “Unforgiven” dismantles the Western is the character of W.W. Beauchamp, played by Saul Rubinek, a biographer who is enthralled with the gunslingers. He starts the movie out by following a man named English Bob, played by Richard Harris, a bounty hunter who fills Beauchamp’s head with exaggerated tales of his heroism and life on the frontier. Upon encountering Little Bill, Beauchamp’s idealized thoughts of the west are shattered when the sheriff brutally beats English Bob and reveals the man is a fraud and a liar. Little Bill proceeds to tell Beauchamp how men like Bob are nothing but killers making up these grand stories to make them seem far more moral than they are. Little Bill telling Beauchamp about the truth of the west is a perfect parallel to Eastwood’s movie showing the audience that the myth we have bought into for decades is nothing more than a facade to glorify killers and cowards. “Unforgiven” is one of the best deconstructions of a genre I have ever seen.

“Unforgiven” is graced by show-stopping performances from Eastwood and Hackman. Eastwood’s Munny is a broken down shadow of his former self who has trouble getting on his horse and can’t shoot a bottle no more than 20 feet away. As the movie progresses, we see Munny grow back into his old ways and become the force of death and destruction that brought him so much infamy. This is a perfect role for 1990s Clint Eastwood. He rose to fame off the grim murderous characters he portrayed in westerns of the 60s and 70s, but by the 90s had left that life behind him. Eastwood’s quiet and restrained deliveries expertly capture a man who has tried his hardest to better himself.

Gene Hackman’s Little Bill has been one of my favorite Western villains since my dad showed me this movie when I was 14. Little Bill is calculating, cruel, and despises the mythological cowboys. He rules the town of Big Whiskey with a tyrannical streak, with guns being prohibited for all except him and his deputies. In the first scene of the movie he is established as a hateable man who is unwilling to pursue the justice of the old west. Hackman plays this measured man with expert skill and serves as a very worthy foe to Eastwood’s Munny.

“Unforgiven” is not just amazing acting and wonderful writing, the movie has gorgeous cinematography and a beautiful score. Despite the movie being a deconstruction of the genre, this movie still has the striking visuals audiences have come to expect from Westerns. This stunning movie was made even more nice to look at by the 35mm print the Music Box opted to show.

“Unforgiven” is an amazing movie. From technical aspects, camera work, score, lighting, to the acting, to the incredible story that functions as a breakdown of the genre itself, this is a movie that everyone should watch, even those who claim to dislike Westerns. I count myself very lucky I had the opportunity to rewatch this classic in theater and I know I am looking forward to the rest of the “Hell on the Homestead” series.

I am giving “Unforgiven” five out of five stars.