Unforgiven feels like a capstone to all manner of things. One could, for instance, mistake this for Clint Eastwood’s last film, because it is so autumnal in tone, and because it feels as if Eastwood intended this as his grand farewell letter to filmmaking. Of course, it’s nothing of the sort; Eastwood continues to successfully direct and star in movies (Gran Torino, Million Dollar Baby), though in a curious way, one could almost make the argument that Unforgiven was his last ‘traditional Eastwood’ movie, and certainly his last ‘traditional’ Western. Released in 1992, at a time when Westerns were experiencing a steep decline in popularity—a decline that apparently continues to the present day—Unforgiven felt as if Eastwood was walking toward the sunset with his hand raised, waving us goodbye. Naturally, it wasn’t the end of him nor the end of Westerns, though if Unforgiven were the end... well, it would certainly be a terrific note to go out on.
Having said that, it is an unusual Western, if only because Eastwood actively betrays the genre’s conventions. Though at first glance it looks routine, Unforgiven is actually something of an end-state for the genre. Classic Westerns, like the early Clint Eastwood flicks and most of John Wayne’s pictures, are young in tone and full of spirit and heroism, with damsels that need rescuing and with plenty of reckless gunplay. But Unforgiven feels older; it feels mature, aged. Eastwood plays William Munny, an old farmer who in his younger days was an outlaw (specifically a legendary killer). Munny is called upon by a young bounty hunter who caught wind of a $1000 bounty on the head of two men that attacked a prostitute. Munny agrees to help the kid gather the reward by murdering the two thugs. He recruits his old friend Ned (Morgan Freeman) to help with the grisly task, and together the three men ride out to the town of Big Whiskey to collect on the bounty. There they encounter the Sheriff, “Little Bill” (Gene Hackman), a staunch anti-vigilante who promises to brutalize anybody that attempts to harm the two men. So, we have our small town, with its barber, its bar and its brothel; we have our outlaws and our sheriff; and we ostensibly have our hero and our villain. But Unforgiven’s similarities to ‘traditional’ Westerns end there.
Take, for instance, the fact that none of the characters within can be said to be good or ‘moral’ people. Typically a Western—or an action or adventure film, for that matter—will have a righteous lead, a bona fide hero that the audience can root for. But not here, for Eastwood’s Munny is hardly a saint. He is a broken and tired old man that’s killed too many people to count and caused unspeakable damage to lives, livelihoods, and property. Munny’s cohort Ned is the same, he too an accomplished killer. And even the Sheriff, who we would normally look to for some moral grounding, insists on violence. He conceivably does the right thing—he punishes the two thugs accordingly (although the punishment is far too lax to our eyes) and he aims to protect the convicted men from any more harm, which is just—and yet he is a sadist, doling out punishment to the wrong people, and extreme punishment at that—torture, resulting in death.
In that way, the film does not present us with a binary choice. We can’t say, “this guy is bad and this guy is good,” because no such divide exists. Each and every main player, including the madam that initially puts up the bounty for the two men, is entrenched in a sort of foggy moral middle-ground. Sheriff Little Bill isn’t objectively evil—he is simply a horrible person. Munny isn’t a hero—he’s done too much wrong in the past, unspeakable things we can’t forget. Crucially, they are both men of justice, and that is perhaps the sole redeeming quality we can find in either of them. In their solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short world (Thomas Hobbes’ words) that quality, that sense of justice, is incredibly important. (On a somewhat tangential note, I wonder if we’ve been too conditioned to look for a hero and a villain in every narrative. I’ve seen Unforgiven numerous times now, and each time I cast Munny as the hero before I catch myself and remember that he is a legitimately bad person. To be sure, I am still supportive of him, but a hero he is not. I think of Tony Soprano in the same way. These are not good people, so why are we initially inclined to portray them as such?)
That moral ambiguity is very unlike the Western genre. And for me that is, in no uncertain terms, Unforgiven’s greatest strength. Death is a trivial thing in Westerns. The issue is not whether death as a form of justice and as a punishment is just or unjust; rather, the issue is that the typical Western fails to capture violence in any depth. What does violence mean, and what does it mean to be violent? The simple good/evil encapsulation that most Westerns perform is one-dimensional and ultimately dissatisfying. Violence and death isn’t so facile. The ironic observation that policemen and criminals aren’t too dissimilar—both like to fight and shoot—is apt here, as much as a simplistic observation like that can be. And Unforgiven would certainly reinforce that. There is no moral difference between Little Bill and Munny. The only difference is administrative: one man wears a gold-colored star-shaped badge that we assign meaning to, and the other doesn’t.
Unforgiven's violence is circular—that is, violence begets violence, begets violence, begets violence; a murderer is murdered by a murderer, and that murderer is murdered by a murderer. Little Bill kills Ned, and then Munny kills Little Bill. It feels endless, and the film suggests that killing can perpetuate itself. The two thugs would have killed the prostitute had they not been stopped; Little Bill would have killed other vigilantes had he survived; Bill’s band of brutes certainly had no qualms about taking lives; and even transient characters like English Bob will, we feel, kill again. The film’s most tragic moment is the death of Ned. It is sickeningly ironic that the one person that could no longer bring himself to kill, could no longer even fire a gun, is mutilated by the Sheriff, his corpse displayed in the center of town.
That cycle of violence is, for me, what makes Eastwood’s treatment of William Munny so interesting. As the picture’s title might suggest, Munny spends the duration of the film dealing with feelings of remorse and regret. He thinks that by reforming he can forgive himself. Clinging to the memory of his wife, he gives up shooting, gives up killing, even gives up the drink—all destructive vices that lead to destructive behavior. But his dead wife is a shallow shield and an empty name. No matter how many times he cites her, no matter how many times he whines that he has changed his ways because of her, the true William Munny is still there. His self-forgiveness is a charade. He is still the same bad person, and that person eventually breaks free. Eastwood’s character is the only one that survives the picture—he apparently goes on to have a good life, at least according to the epilogue title card—but I don’t think Munny really survives that shootout; at least, not the reformed Munny, not the man Munny desperately wants to be. By using violence as a remedy Munny kills his new self, shattering all hope of becoming a better man. Is it a coincidence that he executes his namesake, the Sheriff Little Bill? And if it is a coincidence, does the sentiment not still apply anyway?
When Munny bursts into the bar and says, “Any man don’t wanna get killed, better clear on out the back,” and when he proceeds to fire upon those miscreants, ending with the rather gruesome close-quarters execution of Little Bill, it is difficult not to applaud him. After two hours of tension, and two hours of people not getting what they deserve, it is incredibly satisfying and, in a way, freeing, to see them all fall in a sudden eruption of violence. But even then, at that very triumphant moment, I am acutely aware that this is not a heroic act. This is a tragic act, and this is a tragic film. Munny has pleased us, and likely pleased himself, and yet he has failed. That is an incredibly powerful thing, more so given that this comes in a genre that we don’t expect such things from. It is strange to think that one of the greatest Westerns ever made—perhaps the greatest, at least for me—is completely unlike all that came before it. But Unforgiven is just that. It is tremendous, to say the least.
Back from my off week last week, I’ll have a bumper-edition of “Years Later” for Friday. We’ll be looking at Kissing Jessica Stein, the rom-com now enjoying its tenth anniversary, and on Thursday I’ll have a piece about an overlooked Ridley Scott film, Black Rain, starring Michael Douglas and Andy Garcia. Be sure to join us then!