Unforgiven - 25th Anniversary 4K Restoration Review
Clint Eastwood’s lengthy career in horse opera was brought to a self-imposed end with 1992’s Unforgiven, directed by and starring Mr Eastwood from a script by David Webb Peoples which had bounced around Hollywood for the best part of twenty years. The movie very much belongs to the Revisionist Western stable, a movement crystallised by Eastwood’s former employer Sergio Leone with his incomparable ‘Dollars’ trilogy in the late 1960’s (to whom the film is dedicated, along with Don Siegel who set Clint’s Dirty Harry loose upon the world). But the film does more than just blur the lines between hero and villain as it’s the final chapter in the director’s own deconstruction of the Western legend.
Eastwood takes the lead role as William Munny, an old gunfighter feared across the plains for his nasty streak, who’s sounded out by a younger wannabe regarding the collection of a thousand-dollar bounty on two hoods who’ve disfigured a young prostitute. Munny, having renounced his ways and now a widower with two kids in tow, sees a chance to secure his future and that of his children with such a sizeable reward and he reluctantly agrees to join the so-called “Schofield Kid”, unsure that his killer instinct is still intact without a bottle of hooch in his hand. Along the way he recruits an old partner in crime, Morgan Freeman’s Ned Logan, and the three of them ride off towards the tinpot berg that is Big Whiskey, Wyoming where their prize awaits. But also waiting for them is Gene Hackman’s local sheriff, ‘Little Bill’ Daggett, who has a particular distaste for bounty killers…
The film offers up a decidedly unvarnished take on the genre, examining the power of myth and the coruscating effect of violence on all who practice or receive it. Indeed, the point-blank execution of one character whilst sitting on the toilet is as unembellished a demise as has ever been seen in a Western and the movie continues in that vein with a variety of unflinching expirations, each as unromantic as the next. Gunfights are often short, sharp eruptions of death, every character seemingly only a heartbeat away from meeting their maker and that sense of temporal doom hangs over the film like a cloud, soaking the various stand-offs with tension as much as the actual rain does (itself almost an ever-present character past the half-way point of the film). Yet there’s also humour sprinkled throughout which helps to cut through the atmosphere when it gets too thick, not just from Clint’s darkly deadpan quips (“You just shot an unarmed man!” - “Well he should’ve armed himself”) and his ornery old nag who refuses to comply, but also from Ned’s baser instincts re: the opposite sex; they’re never far from his thoughts.
While it’s very much an anti-violence piece it doesn’t shy away from the heart of darkness that beats at the core of Will Munny, not offering up empty platitudes about the nature of men but providing the kind of uncomfortable duality that marks out the great storytelling from the good, and it’s the sort of role that Eastwood can do in his sleep. His opposite number, Little Bill, is perhaps an even more pertinent example of this. He’s unquestionably the antagonist of the piece yet he’s not a panto villain with gossamer-thin motivations, rather he’s a man of deep convictions who’s unwavering in his beliefs, despising every one of the opportunistic cut-throats who breeze through town without obeying his laws to hand over their shootin’ irons. Hackman’s Oscar-winning portrayal is vital in humanising the character, reducing down the bluster that often typifies his performances into a more concentrated form, one which adds to the feeling of latent menace that permeates his presence. This feeling is heightened by the scenes of Bill gleefully recounting tales to the travelling writer W.W. Beauchamp, played by Saul Rubinek with a suitable air of bookish subservience, as his charm masks the casual brutality that constantly bubbles just beneath the surface.
The other cast members are also very good value for it. Morgan Freeman’s Ned is a randy so-and-so, bagging “free ones” from the town’s prostitutes as advance payment on the bounty which they've scraped together, and Frances Fisher leads their group as the ginger-nutted ‘Strawberry Alice’, nicely relaying her outrage as one of her colleagues is badly disfigured and the punishment is limited to a fine of a few horses. Anna Thomson is Delilah Fitzgerald, the “cut whore” as so matter-of-factly described by her boss, and while she doesn’t have a lot to do her scenes with Clint late on have a very sweet tone to them which come as something of a counterpoint to the encroaching darkness. Her pimp, ‘Skinny’ Dubois, is played by Anthony James with just the right amount of business-like detachment, his drawn, pock-marked visage being a perfect fit for this sleaze merchant. Jaimz Woolvett is the baby-faced “Schofield Kid” projecting brash impudence at every turn, although his range is exposed somewhat by the more intensely emotional scenes as the Kid wrestles with his conscience. Last up is the late, great Richard Harris, and although this Irish native was cast somewhat incongruously as ‘English Bob’, another gunslinger seeking the bounty, his sheer magnetism and wonderfully raspy delivery always keep your attention.
Unforgiven was a critical and commercial smash upon release, finally landing Clint an Oscar for Best Director and also Best Picture, and it propelled his career to even greater heights behind the camera (having already directed some 15 feature-length efforts by then) than in front of it. And to think that the dumb, disposable fun of the Charlie Sheen actioner The Rookie was the movie he made prior to this! It’s easy to see Will Munny as an analogue for the man himself as he took on the task of making Unforgiven, being drawn back to Westerns for one last shot and finding that his taste for it was as fierce as it ever was, delivering not just one of the best examples of the genre but of filmmaking, period. While Eastwood hasn’t saddled up since, his recent comments during the Cannes premiere of the new 4K restoration would indicate that he’ll ‘never say never’, should the right script come along.
The 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray
For Unforgiven’s 25th anniversary Warner Bros have restored the movie from the original camera negative for this brand-new 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray release, which also includes a new 1080p Blu-ray minted from the same source (not currently available to buy separately outside of this 4K pack). Shot in anamorphic widescreen by Jack N. Greene, this 2.40 aspect presentation is faithful to those wide Panavision vistas, and the 4K UHD version has also had an HDR (High Dynamic Range) pass which draws out some subtle but welcome advances over the SDR (Standard Dynamic Range) Blu-ray. Things like lamp lights and open fires burn with a realistic intensity that’s sorely missed on the regular Blu-ray, along with the brilliance of the muzzle flashes from the firearms, and the darker scenes also eke out more shadow detail in HDR along with the usual refinements in brighter highlights like clouds and windows. Just look at the scene when the working girls are totting up their savings to provide the bounty, the net curtains on the windows are quite bright and blown-out in SDR but are very finely delineated in HDR.
One of the more obvious differences between them is in the colour palette, as the Blu-ray features a heavy red/orange tint to skin tones during the darker, lamp-lit moments in the film as well as a boost in saturation in general, while the UHD has a more even-handed presentation of colour. It still looks plenty vibrant when it needs to - foliage in particular is actually lusher on the UHD, looking drier and dustier on the Blu-ray - but it foregoes the comic-book gaudiness of the Blu-ray grading, giving the 4K iteration a look that’s less ruddy and more realistic. The lack of nuance to the Blu-ray’s colour scheme robs it of depth and dimensionality versus the UHD, and adding to this effect is the 4K resolution of the latter. Wider shots reveal genuinely finer details like roofing slats on building, and while it may not ‘wow’ the people who are constantly jonesing for razor-sharp 4K acuity the effect is very much a cumulative one; pop in the Blu-ray after watching the UHD for a certain amount of time and the lack of depth and detail is patently apparent.
The UHD has a finer grain structure which tends to appear coarser and noisier on the Blu-ray, and the HEVC encode on this 66GB disc doesn’t appear to have any troublesome encoding issues. There are a few shots within the film itself that present some very odd-looking posterisation and other fringing artefacts that look nothing like any ‘edge enhancement’ I’ve ever seen before but these appear to be source related as they appear on both the UHD and Blu-ray versions as presented here. Please note: the screenshots in this review were extracted directly from the 1080p Blu-ray and are for illustrative purposes only. This review was carried out on a Sony 65ZD9 4K HDR display and Panasonic UB900 4K player, with the image correctly calibrated to the industry standard D65 white point.
Audio comes by way of a lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix on both UHD and Blu-ray discs, there’s no ‘immersive’ remix but then the film simply doesn’t warrant it because it’s not about audio/visual acrobatics, and the lossless encode is still a welcome step-up over the old Dolby Digital 5.1 track on the previous Blu-ray. Dialogue is rendered with clarity, the music is gently spread across the front sound stage and the various gunshots have a pleasing amount of snap and punch, they don’t sound like the same cheesy gunshot effects that were recycled in umpteen movies prior to this. The bass lends some welcome support during the shotgun blasts and the rumbles of thunder which punctuate the film, and while the surround channels aren’t called into constant action they provide a nice amount of rain falling around you during the wetter moments.
Unfortunately there have been no new bonus features added to the set. They remain a worthy bunch of supplements when totted together but it’s a shame there wasn’t a new retrospective piece on the film or anything about the 4K restoration. You’ll get an audio commentary from Clint’s biographer Richard Schickel and several documentaries and featurettes which break down thusly and are all presented in 480i standard definition video: Eastwood on Eastwood (1h.08m:34s), All on Accounta Pullin’ a Trigger (22:35), Eastwood & Co: Making Unforgiven (23:52), Eastwood: A Star (16:07), Maverick TV Episode ‘Duel at Sundown’ (49:07, black and white), and lastly the theatrical trailer. The commentary is common to both discs in this 4K set but the video-based extras all reside on the standard Blu-ray only.
Unforgiven has lost none of its potency in the quarter century since its release and this restored 4K UHD Blu-ray is a fine celebration of a fine film, the HDR image and lossless audio all contributing to make this the best-ever home video version of the movie. You also get a remastered regular Blu-ray in the package too, and although it’s a pity there are no updated special features the restoration of the main feature is reward enough.
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