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Clint Eastwood’s new film Hereafter opened in theaters on Friday, and gave us a tale of ponder and wonderment at the possibilities that follow our mortal life. It’s not been his best received work, and some critics express worry that Clint Eastwood is going the way of Woody Allen - a once incredible director that now just churns out films nobody cares about. I disagree with this point of view. Actually, Eastwood is among those colleagues of his whose worst works still best 90 percent of the dreck unleashed upon us by Hollywood - the Coen Brothers, Spielberg, Scorsese. He seems to enjoy the darker and more ambiguous places of human existence: racism in Gran Torino, and ideas of afterlife and communication with the dead in Hereafter.
In what some would consider his best film, Unforgiven, he challenges the optimistic view that we can in fact change who we are. In the film (which won the Best Picture Oscar in 1992), he plays William Munny, a reformed “killer of women and children,” whose wife cured him of drinkin’ and wickedness before she died. Now he’s getting old and just wants to raise his two kids in peace.
Fate holds a different path for him. In a close by town, two cowboys cut up a whore after an ill-timed giggle, and her friends put up a bounty on the two men after they deem the punishment issued by the local sheriff (played Gene Hackman) unjust. Though he initially turns down the proposition to go after the cowboys, Munny decides that there’s enough coin involved to make it worth his and his children’s while. He enlists the help of his friend Ned (Morgan Freeman) and the hunt for the men is on.
The film has been oft-described as the “anti-Western,” and rightfully so. It’s dark and dreary and dusty, and the usually clear-cut heroes and villains are muddled. We’re sympathetic to Munny, because he’s played by Eastwood (what a badass!) and because those cowboys cut up that nice whore’s face, but he openly admits to killing men, women, and children, often in a drunken rage. He’s tried to toe the line for a while now, but gives up and reintroduces himself to his old vices (that is to say, if killing’s a “vice”). Cops are usually good people, but Hackman’s Sheriff Little Bill Daggett rules with an iron fist, and often breaks the law as he enforces it, and is brutality personified. One scene has him interrogating Ned with the assistance of a bull whip. Ned, exhausted and bleeding, spits out a few answers. Little Bill puts his mouth next to his ear.
“Now, Ned, them whores are gonna tell different lies than you. And when their lies aren’t the same as your lies, I’m gonna hurt you. And not all gentle like we’ve been doin’. I’m gonna hurt you bad."
These characters are the strongest trait of the movie. When they meet in the finale, you have two individuals that are both reprehensible, but only one of them seems to know it.
“I don’t deserve this,” Bill gasps as he stares down the barrel of Munny’s rifle. “I’m building a house.”
“Deserve’s got nothing to do with it.” Munny coldly mutters. He’s a killer, that’s just what he is. You can’t change who you are.
Unforgiven is not an happy film, but it is a great one. Its complicated characters are its strongest asset, but not its only one. In addition are other common traits of Eastwood films like gorgeous cinematography, sharp dialogue, and a slower pace, it adds up to one of the best movies of the man’s career. For those of you who thought Hereafter’s slow pace hurt it, here’s a film where it was done to perfection.