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No. 17: “Unforgiven” (1992)

“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.

12 Responses

  1. This is possibly a film that only Clint Eastwood could have made. We don’t see his earlier days or his wife that reformed him, but we have William Munny is the culmination of every gunslinger he ever played in the same way that Walt Kowalski is the culmination of all his mean tough characters. This really is a perfect film in that I can’t think of a single thing that could gave been changed to improve it.

    • It belongs on that short list with “Chinatown” in my book.

      Good point about how this is a “culmination” role; it’s kind of like a finale in that way. So was Walt Kowalski, which Eastwood said — here’s to hoping he gets senile, forgets and takes another part — would be his last role as an actor.

  2. cracking show. hackman shouting ‘you cowardly son of a bitch, you just shot an unarmed man’ and clint’s reposte are just gold

    • The retort: “He shoulda armed himself if he was gonna decorate his saloon with my friend.” Class-ic.

  3. This is such a good movie. I gushed over the simplicity of the filmmaking. It wasn’t trying to be epic or bombastic. It took its time for the story to unfold, the characters to evolve or devolve and have a fitting conclusion.

    • The conclusion is perfect. Well, the whole movie is perfect, but I loved the exchange between Little Bill and Munny — Clint Eastwood has a way of saying more in one word than most actors do in 30. I also love the pacing; it’s slow but never boring and very deliberate.

      • “Clint Eastwood has a way of saying more in one word than most actors do in 30”

        He does, doesn’t he! Take a look at Gran Torino, particularly the birthday scene. I don’t think he speaks through the whole scene, everything is conveyed with a look and a grunt or two.

  4. I simply luv this film. I remember early on some people took it as a simple film. To me its just the opposite. Rich with characters and story line.

    • Yeah, I’d say anyone who calls “Unforgiven” a “simple” movie wasn’t paying very close attention. There’s so much going on there: Bill Munny’s character arc, the subplot with English Bob and his biographer, the dialogue, the cinematography.

  5. Love this movie – probably Clint’s best work (in front of and behind the camera).

    “Deserves got nothin’ to do with it.”

    Might just sum up the entire genre’s philosophy in a single line – mostly through delivery.

    • I think “Unforgiven” really showcases Eastwood’s ability to funnel entire pages of dialogue into one really sock-you-in-the-gut line. He’s always been aces at doing that.

  6. […] U is for “Unforgiven” […]

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