William Munny (Clint Eastwood) is living a hard-scrabble life, working a pathetic dirt farm, half of his pigs dying of fever, trying to raise his two young children and bitterly mourning the death of his wife – “she cured me of drinkin’ and wickedness,” as he tells anyone who will listen – when he’s offered one last shot at the brass ring.
And what wickedness. “You’ll be William Munny out of Missouri, killed women and children,” says Sheriff ‘Little’ Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman) towards the end of the film, when killer and lawman stand off each against other. “I killed women and children,” Munny admits; “killed just about everything that walked or crawled …”
‘Little’ Bill is a regular kind of guy; he inspires loyalty in his deputies, spends his off duty hours building a house where he can enjoy the simple pleasures of sitting on his porch, smoking his pipe, drinking coffee and watching the sun go down. Nevermind his shortcomings as a carpenter, he’s a man who takes pride in a job well done. And the results of a job well done as far as being sheriff of Big Whiskey is concerned is a town free of outlaws and assassins, a town where visitors obey the clearly posted City Ordnance sign and turn in all weapons.
When Skinny (Anthony James), owner of the local billiard hall (read “brothel”), summons ‘Little’ Bill to officiate after a couple of cowpokes attack one of his girls after “she let out a giggle” at his “teensy little pecker” (these Bar T boys obviously have issues about size), he fines them and threatens them with the bullwhip if they don’t pay up.
The girls, led by Strawberry Alice (Frances Farmer), are understandably aggrieved and pool their meagre savings to post a bounty. Word gets out and the first gunman who shows up is English Bob (Richard Harris), a flamboyant and self-aggrandizing showman who’s travelling with his “biographer” W.W. Beauchamp (Saul Rubinek), a writer of penny-dreadfuls who laps up all of English Bob’s heavily exaggerated tales.
‘Little’ Bill greets English Bob by giving him a pistol-whipping and kicking him down main street, sending out a message to any other assassins who might come calling that Big Whiskey is a zero tolerance kind of place when it comes to gentlemen of that profession. When English Bob is run out of town in chains, Beauchamp stays on, just as entranced by ‘Little’ Bill’s tales of the reality of the west.
Meanwhile, Munny has been coerced into picking up his guns and saddling his horse once more – he’s lost his technique with the former and can barely stay in the saddle of the latter – by a wind-and-piss braggart who styles himself as ‘The Schofield Kid’ (Jaimz Woolvett) “on account of Schofield model Smith & Wesson”. Munny in turn ropes in his old partner, Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman), and the three of them head for Big Whiskey and a double killing. After all, as Ned puts it, “we done stuff for money before”.
Under Eastwood’s direction, the terse frontier poetry of David Webb Peoples’ script (which Eastwood bought the rights to ten years before he filmed it, waiting until he was the right age to play the character) becomes an elegy for the western in a way that no other film since Sam Peckinpah’s ‘The Wild Bunch’ has achieved. It also demythologizes the western while at the same time, through the ingenious use of the Beauchamp character, reminding us where the myths came from in the first place.
Munny is Eastwood’s finest acting performance (Walt Kowalski in the recently released ‘Gran Torino’ runs a close second), a man who spends all but the last fifteen minutes of the film in denial. Along with the oft-repeated “she cured me of drinkin’ and wickedness”, his mantra is “I ain’t like that no more”, and every time he says it, it sounds a little more hollow, a little more like something he’s trying to convince himself of.
‘Unforgiven’ deconstructs the genre by painting everything in shades of grey. Munny by his own admission has killed women and children, done things for money and professes to being unable to remember most of his misdeeds (“I was drunk most of the time”) and yet for all of his assertions that he’s changed he’s simply being untrue to himself and it’s only when the need for revenge and half a bottle of whisky are lodged inside of him that the real Munny re-emerges … and an apocalypse in microcosm comes to Big Whiskey.
‘Little’ Bill just wants to keep his town free of assassins and “men of low character” and yet he has no qualms about resorting to brutally sadistic methods to accomplish it. The Schofield Kid is desperate to make a name for himself and blatantly fabricates the extent of his career as a hired gun, and yet the messy reality of killing a man proves too much for him in the final analysis. English Bob already has a reputation but is hellbent on perpetuating his own legend; he is ultimately proved a liar. Beauchamp, the ending implies, is the man who will chronicle Munny’s showdown with ‘Little’ Bill (I’ll omit the motivations and mechanics of this scene for the benefit of anyone who hasn’t seen the film) and yet his literary talents seem less in harness to the truth than to the claiming of a story dramatic enough to boost the sales of his purple prose.
The title crawl that closes ‘Unforgiven’ is purposefully ambiguous, as is the very title. An anti-violence aesthetic hangs over the whole film (particularly in the painfully extended death of one of the cowpokes), yet the final shoot-out is as cathartic and iconic as any western in Eastwood’s filmography.
‘Unforgiven’ is a richly rewarding film that demands repeated viewings. It works on many levels. Acting, script, direction, cinematography and music are spot-on perfect. There isn’t a misstep or a wrong note in the whole thing. It’s a film whose characters are flawed and world weary; who are defined by experience and regret. Some of them change their minds in a welter of remorse. Some can no more escape who they are than fly to the moon. And, in the main, it’s all on account of pullin’ a trigger.