“It’s a hell of a thing, killin’ a man. Take away all he’s got and all he’s ever gonna have.” ~~Bill Munny
Bill Munny (Clint Eastwood) likes to think he’s a man whose occupations chose him and not the other way around. Marriage, followed by widowerhood, led him to a hard life as a father and hog farmer in Kansas. Whiskey, devilment and killing occupied his younger days, though not because of any real talent. “I’ve always been lucky when it comes to killin’ folks,” he remarks to a fellow gunman, and he means it. For better or worse, chance, he believes, has dictated the course of his life.
The way Eastwood plays him, Munny’s delusional and right. Splendidly lensed and acted, Eastwood’s expansive “Unforgiven” is a thorough study of fate versus human nature. Herein lies the dark magic of Eastwood’s Western: The actor/director takes typical Western themes — lawlessness and justice, wild men “tamed” by good women — and upends them. Greed and lust push lawmen to abuse power, while killers operate according to their own moral codes. He asks: Does chance make men what they are? Or does chance play understudy to human nature, be it twisted and cruel or merciful?
Don’t wait on easy answers; Eastwood isn’t about to provide them. “Unforgiven” is a hard film, and in it Eastwood travels into the furthest corners of man’s psyche. He does so by merging two stories: that of Munny and Little Bill Daggett, the violent sheriff of small-town Big Whiskey, Wyo. Munny believes marriage and sobriety cured him of wickedness, but temptation tests him: The Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett), a boastful gunman, wants Munny to partner with him on a bounty hunting mission. They could collect $1,000 for killing two men involved in carving up a prostitute (Anna Levine) in Big Whiskey. Munny resists — “I ain’t like that anymore” — but soon realizes he needs the money. Farming he can’t master, but killing? That he knows deep down and in ways he doesn’t like to talk about.
Ned (Morgan Freeman), Munny’s old partner in crime, knows killing too, and he signs on for a piece of the reward. “I guess they got it comin’,” Ned figures, but in tracking the offenders he discovers he cannot pull the trigger. This offers a counterpoint for Munny’s transformation, who reclaims his will to kill at the same moment Ned loses his. This proves useful because Daggett, remarkably sadistic for such a principled lawman, does not welcome gunslingers. Nor does he suffer braggarts, and that includes English Bob (Richard Harris), who rides into town with his biographer (Saul Rubinek) and intends to collect that reward. Daggett has other ideas, especially since it’s the injured prostitute’s friends who’ve offered the prize. Those who undermine the sheriff’s authority, Bob learns, pay a brutally steep price. Hackman’s ability to move from quiet condescension to volcanic rage in these moments is disturbing.
One of the most impressive aspects of “Unforgiven” is the amazing depth David Webb Peoples’ script gives its characters. The line between “heroes” and “criminals” is blurred by the ways the act of killing affects the killers. Daggett holds a position of honor, but he is so ruthlessly self-serving that he’s hardly a beacon of morality. (Hackman, in fact, makes him a despicable villain for the ages.) Munny claims to have reformed but reverts to his old ways easily — only, he says, to avenge a friend’s death. Yet in his steely expressions and tone of voice, Eastwood suggests this change could be more permanent, that Munny might have opened a door he cannot shut. And somewhere in the middle are Ned (Freeman smartly plays him as relieved and disgusted with his inability to pull the trigger) and The Kid, who realizes too late that the fantasy of murder and its reality are vastly different.
On par with the acting is the film’s cinematography and set design, both nothing short of awe-inspiring. Big Whiskey seems every inch a quaint, congenial Western town, but it’s almost too quaint; there’s an undercurrent of unease. Meanwhile, panoramic shots of the dusty plains surrounding Munny’s farm, nearly empty for miles and framed by sunset, highlight his isolation. “We’ve all got it coming,” he tells The Kid, and he’d rather be alone with his demons when it comes for him.