AFI Top 100: Unforgiven

In 2007, the American Film Institute revised their previous 1998 list of the 100 best American films of all time. This column will explore my thoughts on 35 films I’ve selected from this list, mostly following along with the Unspooled Podcast, which inspired my journey to complete the AFI Top 100. You can also follow my progress with my ranking and watchlist. This week’s film is Unforgiven (1992), #68 on the list.

For the longest time, I thought I didn’t like westerns. I’m not sure if it was the aesthetic or they all seemed generic, but they never appealed to me, or at least I thought I didn’t. Beginning my dive into the AFI Top 100 last year proved me wrong when I eventually got to Shane, the 1953 classic by George Stevens. Suddenly everything clicked and I saw the allure of the genre; I finally realized the simplicity I initially saw as a drawback is actually its strength. My complete turnaround has been even further cemented by this rewatch of Unforgiven, which I initially thought was dull when I watched it some years ago.

How I found it anything less absorbing is beyond me. Eastwood’s performance is only outshined by his attentive and nuanced direction. He’s first and foremost a brilliant director of actors, consistently proven by his uncharacteristically modest ability to let others outshine him. Gene Hackman gives the best performance in the film as the menacing sheriff, “Little Bill Daggett,” who grows increasingly cruel as the film progresses, building tension to the inevitable final showdown. Unforgiven doesn’t reinvent the genre, but it doesn’t need to. The set pieces are gripping, the characters are well-rounded, and the narrative is lean. Plus it has a scene of Clint Eastwood and Morgan Freeman talking about masturbation. What more could you want?

Does it belong on this list?

The list is overpopulated with westerns, in my opinion, but this is not one I’d cut, so yes.

AFI Top 100

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