[1992] Unforgiven

Not much more can be said about Unforgiven; the film acts as a rightful tombstone for the death of a genre as non-homage, non-satire. Not much more can be said for director, writer, and actor Clint Eastwood, who, with the fresh-dirt Unforgiven brought to the Oscars in 1992, hyper-legitimized his place as both an actor and director almost 40 years into his career. Unforgiven is remarkable because of its simultaneous ultraviolent and restrained plot stems. Eastwood as Munny, a man with a character fog that neither lifts nor needs to, runs a cast of characters in circles as he cuts through both plot and character with such sharpness that as the last credit rolls across the screen, the audience is certain Eastwood is both the diameter and the circumference, and all points in and on the shape – “life.” Not much more can be said about Gene Hackman or Morgan Freeman or Richard Harris that has not already been said in essay or video format.

The Western genre is dead; long live the West.

A true tribute to Westerns: someone wronged someone else and a hero rides through to correct it as justice prevails. Not much more to be said but this: no film has ever reflected a whole history of a bygone era, its retelling through media, and its death as it laid it to rest like Munny in Unforgiven. Upon re-watch, now almost 25 years post mortem, the character arcs and tropes most obviously plot The End as if the production adlibbed a $15 million movie. Divine or not, Unforgiven demands a depth of understanding of modernity and humanity below a surface of violence. And the circle extends into a cylinder. Not much else could push violence as a PSA for non-violence. Race is irrelevant; occupation is irrelevant; motivation is irrelevant. And the cylinder devolves into a film singularity. High praise for film royalty, yes, but critics – and the Academy – has said it before and will continue to say it. That Eastwood did not win Best Actor is surprising, but not unexpected (since won neither the Golden Globe nor the BAFTA); its win as Best Picture may have surprised some, since Scent of a Woman won the Golden Globe – Drama and Howards End won the BAFTA. But the win fits the mystique in a completely organic way; not as an underdog, a David, but as wistful potential fulfilled, unassumed, victorious, and humble.  

Film as Object can never capture the Expanse of the West. Decades of Manifest Destiny – destiny – translates as microcosm and anecdote. The history of Western film, together, can piece together an American Era, wrought with intrigue and ambition, in a manner no other nation nor citizenry can claim. The experience was uniquely American, and trying to capture it is also uniquely American. The film as Object for Westerns works when the Object is simple – so as to project “the West” onto a single instance allows for interpretation; projected across decades allows for reflection. Unforgiven is a sphere of interpretation and reflection punctuated by a circle of genre no longer primed for film. Any attempt now looks artificial. Why?

Unforgiven beat Howards End and Scent of a Woman, but it also bested A Few Good Men and The Crying Game. This unusually strong year for nominees did not have a common thread for a zeitgeist definition. Unforgiven won because it strayed closest to closure; perhaps war weariness defined 1992; perhaps craft bested story or technique. Or perhaps as the world globalized, the Academy grasped onto the last vestige of the end of an era and hoped to ride it out into the sunset of the roundest and brightest sun.

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