Mar 2, 2010

It's quite a thing, killing a man

"Whatever else it is, “Unforgiven” is an argument about how to represent violence, an argument about movies... Where does that leave Eastwood’s character? Eastwood shapes his own performance as a study in rueful abnegation; at times, he looks lost and vulnerable, even sickly. Yet William Munny, however ashamed of killing, has to avenge Logan’s death. “Unforgiven” ends with him gunning down Little Bill and his friends and then riding away, in a return to the kind of familiar myth that the rest of the movie seems to reject. What, one wonders, was the use of that anti-violence business if it all comes to this? Eastwood’s murderous past characters and his regretful new temper appear to have collided on a Western street. By giving the Western extra dimensions, and by pushing the moral issues to extremes, Eastwood had exposed (inadvertently, perhaps) the limits of the genre. “Unforgiven” is both an entertainment and a contradiction, a masterpiece at war with itself.'' — David Denby, The New Yorker
I have the greatest respect for Denby (although he did once send me off to see The Good Shephard on the grounds that it was a 'masterpiece' which it assuredly is not, and he seems way overexcited about the new Polanski). Here he makes the same mistake so many people do when they get to thinking about Unforgiven a little too much. I guess if you stare at it for long enough looking for an 'argument', you would be forced to conclude that the film is a piece of genre deconstruction which exposed the myths of the Western for what they are. By comparison with this sterling exercise, the ending cannot but strike you as anything but a sell-out, a backwards step, a reversion to generic form, a "contradiction". But only if you make the mistake of thinking the first half is "anti-violence." Its not: Eastwood doesn't have it in for violence, he has it in for men who boast of things they do not have the stomach for. "It's quite a thing, killing a man," he says. He has it in for braggarts. Hackman, the biographer, Harris, all of them are examples of boastful men who talk the talk but do not walk the talk. Only William Munny — poor, sick, wheezing William Munny — turns out to know whereof everybody else in the film speaks. That is the central irony of the film, honed from the very first scene, and connecting up with the same silent stoicism that runs through all his work. Denby is rather too keen, one suspects, to explain the difference between early Eastwood, whom he dismissed, with late Eastwood, to whom he is a recent convert. They are of a piece. His take on the underrated A Perfect World, however, is spot on:—
The word for this kind of dramatic structure is “tragedy.” That’s what Eastwood had become capable of. The two movies had depth, nuance, a burnished and reflective nostalgia for a simplicity that was no longer possible. This became definitive in “Mystic River,” from 2003, a movie in which all of Eastwood’s late obsessions—guilt, destruction, self-destruction, vengeance—merge into a completely satisfying work of art.
Do people realise just how good he is? And just how unusual his being that good is? That he isn't just your average actor-turned-director in the manner of Gibson, Beatty, Costner, Redford?

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