Unforgiven

In a directorial high-wire act on a par with Bird and White Hunter, Black Heart, Clint Eastwood explodes his iconic Man With No Name. It's an artfully wicked vengeance. Unforgiven is the most provocative western of Eastwood's career, and with Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman and Richard Harris along for the ride, it's also the most potently acted. But Eastwood's sixteenth film as a director is best understood as demythology. He's had a hell of a time shaking the Terminator-on-horseback image he created in the Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns of the Sixties, starting with A Fistful of Dollars. He came closest in 1976 by directing and starring in The Outlaw Josey Wales, about a brutal avenger who wins back his humanity. Now, in Unforgiven – which darkens and deepens the themes developed in Josey Wales – Eastwood dissects an aging outlaw's struggle to make his redemption stick. The film is brutally comic in debunking the faux heroics that made Eastwood a star and also politically timely in showing how past sins can wreak havoc on the best intentions.

Looking creaky and weathered, Eastwood (he's sixty-two) plays William Munny, a Kansas hog farmer, circa 1880, who gave up train robbing and murder eleven years ago to settle down with a good woman and raise two kids. Now the wife who reformed him is dead, and he needs cash to save the farm and keep his family from homelessness. A braggart called the Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett) dangles a tempting apple: A group of prostitutes in the town of Big Whiskey have offered a bounty of $500 each for the two cowboys who slashed and scarred pretty Delilah (Anna Thomson). Big Whiskey's sheriff, Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman, in a seductive portrait of evil), let the cowboys off easy, making them pay six horses to the brothel owner to compensate for Delilah's loss of market value. Outraged at the sexist insult, the hookers – led by Strawberry Alice (the excellent Frances Fisher) – pool their money in a prefeminist call for justice.

Munny enlists a pal, retired gunman Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman), to join him on the job. But another bounty hunter, English Bob (a wittily florid Richard Harris), accompanied by a sleazy journalist, W.W. Beauchamp (Saul Rubinek), beats them to town. Daggett, once a lawbreaker himself, puts a vicious end to Bob's plans. That leaves Beauchamp to rely on Daggett for inspiration before Munny arrives for the day of reckoning.

The graying gunfighters of David Webb Peoples's acutely observant script recall such classic films as John Ford's Searchers, Howard Hawks's El Dorado and Sam Peckinpah's Ride the High Country. But Eastwood, aided by Jack N. Green's cinematography and Lennie Niehaus's score, gives the material a singularly rugged and sorrowful beauty. Unforgiven is long (130 minutes) and given to interludes of philosophical musing, but it doesn't ramble. Eastwood performs with absolute authority; it's his most deeply felt performance since Tightrope. Munny has stopped using his outlaw muscles. He's rusty with his gun, his horse and women. When Delilah offers a "free one," Munny declines with gawky tact.

It's the killing that comes hardest. Munny's clumsiness gets him wounded in action. Even Logan, an expert rifleman, bungles an ambush. Freeman's sharply expressive performance indicates the character's aversion to his brutal past. Eastwood, often accused of dodging the consequences of violence in his work, repeatedly shows the pain inflicted by even superficial wounds. In a horrifying scene, the panicky Kid shoots a man who is sitting on a toilet and tries to justify his action by saying the bastard had it coming. "We all have it coming, Kid," says Munny. It sounds like a Dirty Harry "Make my day" line, but the words cut deep into Munny's character. When Daggett forces his hand, Munny's killer instinct overrides his conscience.

In a showdown with the sheriff and his deputies, Munny is transformed into his former self – killing with savage equanimity and balletic grace. He even looks younger and more assured. This is the Eastwood hero the audience once cheered. But Eastwood the filmmaker is no longer cheering. Beauchamp will live to celebrate the legend of William Munny, but no alert viewer will feel the same. Munny's future, as revealed in a bitterly ironic coda, cleverly turns western tradition on its head. By weighing Munny's rise to prosperity against his fall from grace, Eastwood gives Unforgiven a tragic stature that puts his own filmmaking past in critical and moral perspective. In three decades of climbing into the saddle, Eastwood has never ridden so tall.