A couple of thugs cut up the face of a whore (Anna Levine), and the rest of the working gals (led by Frances Fisher) send for someone to take out the two men responsible for a financial reward. Eager to take up the challenge but too inexperienced to do it on his own, ‘The Schofield Kid’ (Jaimz Woolvett) enlists the partnership of long-domesticated gunslinger William Munny (Clint Eastwood). Munny’s wife made him quit the killing business and although she has since passed on, they have two young kids. Needing the cash, Munny reluctantly picks up his old trade, rather unconvincingly leaves the kids on their own and rides off with ‘The Kid’. They soon pick up a third man, Munny’s old gun-slinging pal Ned (Morgan Freeman), though ‘The Kid’ refuses to cut the reward into thirds, so Munny agrees to split his half with Ned. They’re on their way to Big Whiskey, a town ruled over by intimidating sheriff Little Bill (Gene Hackman), who isn’t corrupt, but will brutally fight to keep trouble out of his nice, little town. He’s particularly displeased that the town whores have decided to seek out their own brand of justice after he had already instructed the thugs to hand over some of their horses as compensation. Newly arrived in town is an old acquaintance of the sheriff, English Bob (Richard Harris), a polite but successful gunslinger who is also hoping to collect the bounty for himself. Little Bill takes immediate exception to English Bob’s presence in town. Saul Rubinek plays his ‘biographer’, a man with especially poor intestinal fortitude. Anthony James plays Skinny, proprietor of the ‘establishment’ most of the characters frequent or work out of.
Seen by many as the masterwork of the directorial career of Clint Eastwood (“Play Misty For Me”, “White Hunter, Black Heart”, “A Perfect World”, “Absolute Power”), I find that this dour, stodgy and lethargic 1992 ‘anti-western’ western is the furthest thing from what I want for this genre. Rather than echoing his own series of western anti-heroes, Eastwood’s William Munny (a call-back to Charlton Heston’s “Will Penny”?) reminds one more of the crotchety, roguish, but ultimately good guy characters Jimmy Stewart was playing in Anthony Mann westerns of the 50s. The unfortunate thing is that as a director, Eastwood is nothing like Mann. Boy does this material require a Mann or preferably a John Sturges (“The Magnificent Seven”).
It begins well, is well-shot by an Oscar-nominated Jack N. Green (“Absolute Power”), and the pairing of Eastwood and Morgan Freeman on screen is an enjoyable one. Hell, Frances Fisher has never been better, Saul Rubinek was born for his part, old hand Anthony James is well-cast as Skinny, and Anna Levine is fine, too. After a while though, the lack of energy and lethargic pace have this thing losing my interest about midway. It was around the time I realised that a well-cast Richard Harris is only here as filler. Since Eastwood doesn’t do quick and lively (Those spaghetti westerns tended to be epic-length, but Sergio Leone sure was a lively director), it’s obvious that Harris’ English Bob is only here to give Gene Hackman someone to interact with whilst Eastwood and Freeman take their sweet-arse time getting to town. I could excuse the slow pace if the filler weren’t so apparent. I also think the chance Eastwood took in casting Jaimz Woolvett as ‘The Kid’ proves more Horst Buchholz in “The Magnificent Seven” or Balthazar Getty in “Young Guns II” than Monty Clift in “Red River” or Matt Damon in “Geronimo”. In other words, Clint didn’t discover ‘The Next Big Thing’ here, Woolvett never happened. He’s boring and forgettable, in a role someone like Brad Pitt, Ethan Hawke, or Brendan Fraser probably should’ve played. That’s hindsight for you.
As for Gene Hackman, he gets the Lee J. Cobb/Robert Ryan/Karl Malden role of the hardened authoritarian antagonist perfectly fine. I could argue that James Coburn would’ve been even better, but that would be nit-picking. As an actor, Hackman rarely ever struck a wrong note, but the performances by he, Harris, and Rubinek don’t disguise the slow waiting game here. The plot structure and pacing cripple the film in the middle very badly and it never recovers. I also think the motivation behind Hackman’s character is poorly conveyed in the script. The guy in his first scene seems to be different from the character in the rest of the film. Yeah, he explains in that first scene that he doesn’t like any shit being stirred up in his little town, but there’s not much hint of the cruel sadist in the rest of the film. I’ve heard some say this is a shades of grey film, but Hackman’s character isn’t grey, he’s definitely a villain. It’s just that it isn’t a convincing character, he’s either too fair-minded in the first scene or too sadistic the rest of the time. It’s too much of a shift in behaviour that just doesn’t seem like the same guy at all, despite Hackman’s fine efforts.
Cut out enough to make it seem like it’s not a waiting game, hire a livelier director than Eastwood, make the Hackman character more consistently evil, re-cast the kid, and you’ve got a much better film. As is, it’s not even the third-best western Clint Eastwood has appeared in, and just proves that 98% of the best westerns were made in the 50s and 60s. A subpar western that somehow seems to be a big favourite with everyone else. Eastwood’s performance is good, a pre-God Morgan Freeman is his ideal comrade, and most of the rest of the cast here are solid. This is just too clichéd and uneventful to run so slow and underdone. If you are looking for a film about the end of an era out west, I’d suggest “The Misfits”, “The Searchers”, “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”, or “The Shootist”. If you’re looking for a great western, well there’s plenty of those, including most of those listed above. Don’t bother with this one. Ironic that Eastwood dedicates it to Leone and fellow director Don Siegel, his direction is nothing like theirs. Scripted by an Oscar-nominated David Webb Peoples (“Blade Runner”, “Salute of the Jugger”, “Twelve Monkeys”), it perplexingly won four Oscars, including Best Picture, mind-bogglingly for Best Director and Best Editor (!), and Best Supporting Actor for Hackman.