|HD DVD Western|
|Written by Darren Gross|
|Thursday, 01 June 2006|
In 1880, a couple of years after the death of his wife, notorious intemperate murderer William Munny (Eastwood) is approached by a young gunman (Wolvett) to join him in claiming a thousand dollar bounty on two cowboys who have disfigured a prostitute. Although initially reluctant, Munny relents and brings along his old partner, Ned (Freeman). While Munny used to be an evil man, marriage to his wife reformed him, and it’s been over ten years since he’s killed another human being. As they head toward the town of Big Whiskey, Munny finds himself haunted by visions of his dark deeds and uneasy about the job ahead. Meanwhile in Big Whiskey, arrogant Sheriff Little Bill (Hackman) takes brutal steps to assure that potential assassins steer far away, but a dark inevitable confrontation looms large.
Eastwood’s reflective and powerful western is a well-crafted tale of violence and its repercussions. “Unforgiven” is nearly existential, with great emphasis on the debunking of the gunfighter as hero myth and bringing a welcome sense of haunted trauma to our ostensible “heroes.” What’s especially interesting is the way Eastwood works traditional (John Ford-esque) scenes, such as Munny’s scene at his dead wife’s grave into a tapestry that is ultimately about tearing down the glorifying myths of the traditional western tale. And while the impending sense of doom that informs the last third of the picture leads to the expected violent confrontation, it still carries with it a thought-provoking emotional and intellectual sting that resonates into the final text crawl and beyond.
Eastwood stages scenes of guilt and emotional resonance in a fairly quiet way that invites examination of the themes, motives, and possible metaphors addressed throughout the film. Late in the film, there are some interesting juxtapositions in the framing and evocative imagery that may indicate even larger ideas and metaphors, buried within.
Warner’s HD DVD release of “Unforgiven” is simply stunning. The pristine, razor sharp image is perfect on all counts. “Unforgiven”’s extreme range of dark tones and contrasting scenes of colors and brightness are a data compressor and DVD author’s worst nightmare. On this HD DVD though, one is never made aware of anything problematic or challenging about the visuals. Flickering candlelight; dimly-lit rooms with low-lighting and a hundred different shades of dark brown; brightly lit wide shots filled with multiple planes of activity; all are presented flawlessly, in tight focus, and with a pin-sharp level of detail previously unimaginable on home video.
While that might seem like hyperbole, it isn’t: the Hi-Definition image quality makes it a reality. While DVD is excellent, and HDTV broadcasts even better, the new format blows them completely out of the water with images of such rich detail and clarity, that one notices things one could never detect outside of a theatrical screening of a pristine camera-negative print. The added resolution and image stability gives you an opportunity to see exactly what you are intended to see. You frequently become aware of what’s supposed to be in focus and where the director is steering our eye and attention. On DVD, a character in the mid background or the wall next to him might seem to be out of focus as part of the photography, but there’s always the possibility that what you’re seeing appears soft or indistinct simply from the lower resolution of the format or the DVD compressor’s choices. While watching the HD DVD, you quickly realize that you are noticing little details in the actors’ performances (tiny facial movement, quick suspicious glances) and levels of craftsmanship in the set designs, costumes and makeup that you never noticed before, and with other formats, never would. As a result, you end up completely drawn into the film and find yourself more actively engaging with the story.
As impressive as the HD DVD edition is for what you do see, it’s also an eye-opening experience for what you don’t see. Apart from two or three quick instances of moiré patterns around roof shingles seen in the background, there’s not a single artifact, digital hit, compression flaw, or instance of picture breakup (the bane of broadcast HDTV). It’s going to make watching standard DVDs a lesser experience, as its abundantly clear after viewing this disc, that there’s a lot being left out in standard DVD’s, simply as a limitation of the (heretofore wonderful) format.
The 5.1 sound (via Toslink which plays out as DTS when not sent through HDMI) is equally impressive. From the beautiful stark opening, (with the rich sounds of the opening guitar theme and the softly heard sounds of Munny digging his wife’s grave) it transitions to Big Whiskey with the enveloping sounds of a room-rumbling impending storm. Throughout the disc the sound is consistent in volume and precise in clarity and dynamic range. The storm, rain and gunshots are as impactful and atmospheric sonically as they are visually, and none of the softer or quieter sounds feels lost in the mix. My only quibble is that dialogue seems perhaps a tad too centered at times, but this is most likely an aspect of the original sound mix.
While the bonus features are not presented in HD, it’s doubtful that they ever could--most are TV specials and featurettes which would have been shot and mastered in 1/2 inch video, Hi-8 and Digibeta.
“Eastwood on Eastwood” is a 69min TV special circa 1997 made during production of “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.” It’s a lightly informative as an overview, and has some nice quotes from Eastwood, but it’s a bit clip heavy and a somewhat forgettable. Be warned though- it also spoils major plot turns for “The Enforcer,” “Tightrope” and especially “The Beguiled.” “Eastwood: A Star” is a short featurette produced during the making of “Unforgiven” and is fairly average. Both featurettes use similar behind-the-scenes footage and clips from “Unforgiven” which is a bit wearisome. “All on Accounta Pullin’ a Trigger” is a 2002 retrospective produced for the previous DVD release and has interesting comments and reflections from the leads as well as screenwriter David Webb Peoples. It’s a bit of an eyesore on this disc, though as it is filled with clips that look horrendous and are plagued with all manner of mosquito noise and digital artifacts. “Eastwood & Co.: Making Unforgiven” is the best of the bonus featurettes- it’s a contemporary behind-the-scenes doc produced by Richard Schickle and is filled with great behind-the-scenes footage and interviews that give one a genuine sense of the atmosphere of the production, the filmmakers’ intentions and the sense of family on an Eastwood set. An inspired inclusion is the 1959 “Duel at Sundown” episode from season two of “Maverick” featuring an entertaining guest appearance by Clint Eastwood as a gunfighter. It’s particularly interesting to see Eastwood playing some of the same attitudes and striking some of the same poses over three decades before “Unforgiven.” This is a fairly early performance in his career and there’s a touch of endearing nervousness to it. The transfer of the black and white episode is crisp and displays a rich contrast range. It’s somewhat difficult to discern if this 1.33 episode is in true HD or if it just benefits from the extra bit room and improved compression. Either way, it looks terrific.
Eastwood authority Richard Shickel provides an informative and interesting commentary that provides lots of behind-the-scenes information, artistic observations and historical context. One yearns for Eastwood and other production members to offer their comments, but Schickel does a fine solo job.
The HD DVD release of “Unforgiven” provides a stunning presentation of a terrific, challenging film. The bonus features are worthwhile, and while it’s highly doubtful that we’ll be seeing HD “making of‘ featurettes in the near future (the extra production costs are substantial), Warners and other studios should look into replacing the film clips from their non-HD docs with material that matches the feature transfer. The bottom line, though, is the feature, and in that regard, one could not ask for a better presentation.