Directed and produced by Clint Eastwood. Screenplay by David Webb Peoples. Music by Lennie Niehaus. Photographed by Jack N. Green. Edited by Joel Cox. Production designed by Henry Bumstead. Starring Clint Eastwood, Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman, Richard Harris, Jaimz Woolvett, Saul Rubinek, Frances Fisher, Anna Levine, David Mucci, Rob Campbell, Anthony James.
It is strange when you think about how often movies show us scenes of violence, and how infrequently we feel its effects. There is a long tradition of fight scenes and battles in film, and while some are well done and many are exciting, there are very few that ever ask us to think about what has happened, and what it will mean. Usually, violence is simply a device to mark the period in which the hero loses, or wins. But Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven is a different kind of movie: more perceptive and thoughtful, more sensitive towards violence than many other Westerns, and it gains much of its power from a key distinction: it has no heroes.
Certainly with a main character like William Munny (Clint Eastwood), we get the shades of a hero, but as he goes about a mission to pursue two violent cowboys, his motives change from mercenary, to prideful, to vengeful, and his stop at a moment of self-loathing is as inevitably degrading as what happens next. Eastwood plays Munny with many of the same qualities we expect from a Clint Eastwood performance: taciturn, grave, secretive. But here his demeanor seems to carry extra baggage, his face fraught with more poignant concern. He is an ex-alcoholic, and an ex-murderer. Munny whispers that it was his wife (now dead) who changed him, but certainly it wasn’t only she. He looks like a sinner who once caught a glimpse of hell, and it stayed with him. As Munny, Eastwood plays a reformed man who fears his own capability of a relapse (both in violence and booze), and we will see he is right to worry.
The mission which draws William Munny into the plot of Unforgiven is one of well-intentioned greed. He’s found by a young boy named The Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett), who is en route to Big Whiskey, Wyoming to pick up a contract on a gang of ruffians that disfigured a local prostitute. The local madam (Frances Fisher) has ordered a bounty, and the kid offers to split the cash with the infamous Munny, who needs it to supplement his life as a hog farmer and provide for his children. The conversation between the two men is laced with dread, as poor William seems to know what the kid wants as soon as he arrives, and the newly civilized man finds himself ill at ease with picking up a gun and riding once more. But the money is too tempting, and his current prospects are too bleak. Although Munny rebuffs the Kid, he later leaves his farm and follows the Kid’s trail, after picking up his former partner, Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman). The three of them gallop off to Big Whiskey.
In outline, this sounds like the formula for a traditional Western, perhaps even a good one within those boundaries. But Unforgiven is not at all interested in being traditional. Notice the thorough way it works at dismantling Western clichés, not as a stunt, but as a way to build character. Poor William Munny has consistent trouble mounting his horse, which dismisses any dramatic quick escapes for the posse. One key sequence underlines the inherent difficulty in sharpshooting, with generates greater tension than your usual gunfight scene, where a hero has perfect aim because the script says so. And instead of other Westerns that show locations as remote, Unforgiven builds an outside world around the action: one where trains are more commonplace, information travels freely, and gunfighters have their stories breathlessly told and embellished by journalists. Even the character of the Kid, a callow hothead, feels less like a stereotype and more like a poor child who has read too many of those fiction books.
The film’s own mission to shake loose western cliches is made manifest in a scene midway through the film, where the corrupt sherriff of Big Whiskey, Little Bill (Gene Hackman), has beaten the notorious gunfighter English Bob (Richard Harris) in the streets for violating his rule of no guns in city limits. English Bob, bloody and battered, is thrown in jail alongside his companion, W.W. Beauchamp (Saul Rubinek), who has written a book about English Bob’s gunfights. There, Little Bill toys with Beauchamp and eventually tells him the hard reality of one of the very fights described in the book, as he saw it firsthand. It is a dirtier, cowardly version of the story, and Beauchamp’s face is filled with disillusionment. The moment feels like a rebuke to simplistic, earlier westerns, which established clear-cut good guys and bad guys, before eventually turning inward and growing complex.
That complexity feeds into the overall approach of Unforgiven: there is a lot of Western lore here that feels authentic and new. The earlier scene with Beauchamps is later echoed by a following scene where Little Bill teaches the man about gunfighting, which, we learn, values precision more than the old chestnut of being quick on the draw. Little Bill later adopts the man and brings him home, perhaps because he fancies himself a gunfighter and knows that, in the era depicted in Unforgiven, being a gunfighter means needing a press agent. While Munny’s possee closes in on Big Whiskey, the under-equipped team sleeps under a rainstorm, causing William to get a bronchial infection. Later, they visit a saloon and the sick, recovering alcoholic William is left alone with a bottle of that looms large over him; being on the wagon in the 1880s seems more and more like an impossible prospect.
Eventually, Munny’s crew and Little Bill do cross paths, in ways that cleverly call into question what kind of climax we were looking for. We expect swift justice, but we may very well expect wrong. And as the men continue on their quest, deeper layers of their personalities reveal themselves. I can’t recall the last time I watched a film that had so many quiet, understated scenes in between ones of such brutality. It proves the old rule that character development enhances action, as here the characters contemplate what to do, think about it while they are doing it, and then mull over what they have done, in a terse way that suggests men who are practiced in shame.
One major scene strikes the deepest chord. It takes place in the aftermath of a gunfight between Munny, the Kid and a handful of cowboys (Ned has since departed in anger). The Kid, who has trumped himself up as an experienced killer, reveals now that he has never actually taken a life before this moment. This is not news (William has long suspected as such), but the young man is so shell-shocked that his bravado has calcified into depression. He rambles about how he feels, and the older man, though distracted, is sympathetic to the kid’s plight, as it mirrors his own. The scene is powerful and well-acted as anything else in the movie, and it gains something by the staging, as Munny periodically watches a rider come steadily closer. The two men grapple with something of huge psychological cost, and must do it in between bits of business.
All comes down to a final shootout, one that is pitiless and stays true to the hard facts of Western life that the film has by now allowed us to internalize. We are far from the casual heroism of old Westerns by the time we get to the film’s grisly barroom finale, and the final exchange between William and Little Bill pretty much says it all for the movie’s final stance on heroism. The implication is clear: violence can indeed pay debts, but good men are not violent. It’s the same thought that propels the more serious sections of Roland Emmerich’s The Patriot, before that film devolves into a cartoon. Unforgiven’s climax stresses the strategy of a certain moment, and makes it clear that being dishonorable is indeed a strategy, and a winning one.
The film’s buried themes speak to that moral confusion. Little Bill is a corrupt sheriff, one that leaves the townspeople of Big Whiskey ethically rudderless. But is he an evil man? Is it so unpleasant that he looks after his own? In the movie’s neatest visual metaphor, Little Bill is constantly interrupted while building his home, which is a leaky affair—but isn’t a tentative stab towards civility inherently better than chaos? For that matter, isn’t Bill Munny’s ultimate effect little more than glorified vigilante justice, forced upon a town that needs structure, not lawlessness? Even Little Bill’s cruelest act in the film feels like an attempt (however ill-advised) to enforce order, born out of sheer, understandable desperation. It is fitting that the final scene in Unforgiven is about one character failing to comprehend another character’s complexity, because that is something what everyone else in the movie is guilty of, including William Munny. Again, there are no heroes in Unforgiven, simply men who think of themselves as heroes. David People’s screenplay is satisfyingly rich.
The film plays out on a rich canvas that honors the Western tradition of glorious landscapes. But Jack Green’s cinematography doesn’t just give us wonderful shots, it gives us haunting ones, which owe something to the film’s vaguely autumnal feel. The sun is always out in the film, but it rarely feels bright. Usually, the days are clammy, gloomy, and vaguely depressing, and that is aided by the many scenes that capture a stray chill wind. The characters often seem small, cold, and alone. Also take notice of the scene leading up to the brawl between Little Bill and English Bob—note how every shot, no matter what the angle, shows the town buttressing the wilderness: the balance between civilization and the wild dramatized visually.
Clint Eastwood is a director that I sometimes think is uneven. I’m not truly a fan of Million Dollar Baby, thought Invictus focused on the wrong story, found Flags of Our Fathers to be a disappointing companion piece to the brilliant Letters From Iwo Jima. But when Eastwood is good (Letters, Mystic River, Changeling, In the Garden of Good and Evil), he is very good, and Unforgiven is very very good. Eastwood has a classic craftsman-style approach to his filmmaking, and it serves Unforgiven very well; at times it feels like a movie that could have been made in the 70’s, with how well it pays attention to acting and quiet. It is measured. It shows without being showy. There are no editing tricks, no flashy effects, just compositions and acting that suggest a tension coiling under every scene.
I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that not many people die in Unforgiven. They do not need to, because each death in the movie carries a weight that 100 deaths in other films do not. That is because it is about well-drawn characters that we care about, even in the case of the antagonists. That’s what makes Unforgiven so chilling and unforgettable; the film’s ultimate point suggests not nihilism, but something even worse: the implications of nihilism. “I didn’t deserve this,” one character says towards the end, and the reply he gets is damning, and perfectly appropriate for what the movie has taught us. “Deserve ain’t got nothin’ to do with it.” True. As a matter of fact, there is nothing at all, really, that has anything to do with it. It’s just the way it is.
NEXT TIME PERIOD: 1968 – Planet of the Apes