I first saw Unforgiven when I was a fifteen. At that age, as many readers can confirm, certain things go over your head. The moral ambiguities were lost on me and the action seemed boring. I'm glad I had a chance to see it as an adult.
One of the great things about this movie that defies the Western genre is its realistic depiction of killing. Without giving much away, I'll say that certain characters have problems with the act of pulling the trigger and its aftermath. Unlike many of its Western sisters, Unforgiven goes to great lengths to show that it takes a special kind of hombre to kill a man and be okay with it. Much of the action deals with the characters coming to grips with the reality of death.
Unforgiven also pulls yet another great genre-buster: heroism is nowhere to be found. And unlike certain other Westerns on AFI's list, for example (glorious fanfare of bum-music) The Wild Bunch, the characters are still likeable. William Munny (Clint Eastwood) and his escort are assassins lurking on the fringes of a quiet small town to murder two men who probably don't deserve it. Yet we like and identify with them. Heroism is particularily absent when killing is afoot. The shootouts are unhappy affairs that involve a lot of misery and running away.
If this show has a down side, it's probably Clint Eastwood's stilted acting during some of the early scenes where he is conflicted about the impending assassinations. Or perhaps it's some on-the-nose writing in those scenes. Or a combination of both. Regardless, when William Munny leaves this phase and hardens, Eastwood's acting also improves when he enters familiar dramatic territory and gets lots of chances to deliver his characteristic icy squints.
Something about the ending doesn't seem quite right to me either. Perhaps I missed the important philosophical message, but it lacks a coda wherein we see how the characters lives are affected by the story. Instead we are treated to a some scrolling captions which hint at a coda but answer few questions. This violates the old rule, "Show, don't tell". I won't go into more detail for fear of spoilers.
It's a complicated movie that has something for action-craving Western fans and intellectuals. However, the sudden ending keeps it from being perfect.
4 shots left in the Spencer Rifle out of 5