Earlier this week I reviewed the 1953 classic Western Shane, and now it’s time to take a look at a more modern taken on the genre, Clint Eastwood’s remarkable 1992 film Unforgiven.
(Spoilers to follow)
In the opening titles we learn that William Munny (Clint Eastwood) is a man with a violent past, a thief and a murderer, killer of women and children. Unlike Shane, where we see the main character right from the start of the film, Unforgiven begins in the town of Big Whiskey. A prostitute (Anna Thomson) has been viciously attacked, beaten, with her her face cut to shreds. The men responsible are captured, and the sheriff, Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman) decides their fate: the men are to bring the owner of the saloon (and whore house) several ponies as restitution for the crime. The other prostitutes are outraged by the light sentence, and decide to pool their money together, coming up with $1000 as a bounty to kill the two men responsible for the attack on the prostitute, Delilah.
It’s at this point, several minutes into the film, that we finally meet Munny, a pig farmer struggling to keep his farm running and caring for his two young children. Munny is a widower and has been trying to put his brutal past behind him, living a chaste life for over a decade.
Things are about the change, though: the nephew of a friend who idolizes the man Munny used to be has come to visit. The Schofield Kid (Jaimz Wolvett), a young man who fancies himself a hard-core gun slinger, brings news: a $1000 bounty for the killing of two men who were involved in cutting up a prostitute.
Munny is reluctant at first, but eventually caves, and decides he’ll ride with The Kid and they’ll split the bounty. Munny needs the money to provide a better life for his children. But Munny will not go without his former partner in crime, Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman).
I should point out now that Eastwood and Freeman’s performances in the film (well, and Gene Hackman) are just incredible. Eastwood and Freeman have a lot of chemistry together, and they’re not afraid to put their aging bodies on display. Munny is out of practice in shooting a pistol (as is Logan), and can’t even mount a horse without trouble. We get a sense of a man who desperately wants to put his past behind him, but with every second on the journey to kill the men for the bounty, he’s fighting his true nature. Munny is a killer, and there’s no way around that fact, no matter how hard he tries to supress those urges. Munny frequently evokes the name of his dead wife, as a way to not take a drink of whiskey or have sex with a woman.
Back in the town of Big Whiskey, word has spread that the prostitutes have put a bounty out for the men who cut up their friend. And in Big Whiskey, visitors have to turn in their guns. An old gunslinger named English Bob (Richard Harris) has come to town, a writer in tow (Saul Rubinek) to chronicle the exploits of his subject, writing a biography of the man filled with tall tales — tall tales Little Bill is quick to correct (after he and his deputies have beaten the man to a bloody pulp for not turning over his weapons).
And here we have the great dichotomy of this film, how masterfully Eastwood and screenwriter David Webb Peoples have turned the standard Western motif on its head. Little Bill, the man who is supposed to represent law and order, is a bullying tyrant, while Bill Munny, the killer of women and children, is trying to lead a quiet life as a farmer. In the old days, the bad guy would wear a black hat. But not in Eastwood’s vision. You can’t really tell who is “bad” and who is not, at least not by first appearances.
As they hunt down their prey, we also learn that The Kid isn’t as tough as he’s been saying — he hasn’t killed anyone, in fact, although that will change quickly. Munny, Logan and The Kid find their first target, and Munny dispatches him from this mortal coil — although, not quickly, because he’s still a bad shot, but Munny eventually shoots him in the gut. We, along with the trio, hear the dying man’s words, how’s he so thirsty, and Munny can’t help but yell out to let the man have some water — even though he had just shot him. The man is soon dead, and The Kid finally get his chance at a killing when they track down the second man — in an outhouse, where The Kid blasts him into death. The killing repulses The Kid, and his macho bravado quickly evaporates.
It is in the final act that Munny’s transformation — or, rather, his return — to his old ways is complete. His good friend Ned Logan had left the trio of bounty hunters to return to his wife before the killings had been finished — he didn’t want any other part in it. Logan is captured and turned in to Little Bill, who tortures him for information. Logan dies, and his body is put on display as a cruel joke. Munny is ready for vengeance after finding his good friend’s corpse, and Munny easily slips on his old shoes as the killer of women and children, and avenges the death of his friend.
Unforgiven is an important film (and recognized by the American Film Institute as one of the 100 greatest films of all times), a showcase for the talents of Eastwood, Freeman and Hackman. Just like film audiences of today can watch Shane and be gripped emotionally by it, audiences fifty years from now will find Unforgiven to be just as moving and unforgettable. A must have for any film library.
**** out of ****Powered by Sidelines