Directed by Clint Eastwood
Written by David Webbs Peoples
There are precious few names from the film industry whose names are practically synonymous with the western genre. Some actors and directors have done well with the western, such as James Stewart, Sam Peckinpah, Gene Hackman (whose character in Unforgiven we shall look at in depth in part 2 of this article), but none are names which immediately strike up pictures of western iconography, unlike, say, Sergio Leone, Sergio Carbucci, John Wayne and the the inimitable Clint Eastwood. Try as he might to write, direct and act in films from other genres, and boy did he ever make plenty of them, not to mention some darn fine ones, his name will forever be associated first and foremost with westerns. Understandably, what first comes to mind is his ‘Man With No Name’ character from Leone’s Dollars trilogy, and for good reason considering the legendary status it has earned. However, his most dramatically satisfying and psychologically complex work, in the opinion of this reviewer, is Unforgiven from 1992. It is simultaneously a quintessential western and one that studies its archetypes, many of which were popularized in those spaghetti westerns of old like the Dollars films.
Trouble is a brewing in the town of Big Whiskey, as one mistress working at an inn incurs the inconsolable wrath of some no-good doers (David Mucci and Bob Campbell). The girl in question, Delilah (Anna Levine), is physically scarred along her face, producing the ire of the inn’s owner. No one who want to pay to spend the night in bed with a face like hers now. The town’s sheriff, Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman) breaks a deal with the hoodlums, one that in his esteem will cover the inn’s monetary losses. This does not sit well with the head mistress, Strawberry Alice (Frances Fisher), furious about the inhumane suffering imposed on poor Delilah. With that, she advertises a bounty on the two outlaws, one that attracts at least one notable gunslinger, English Bob (Richard Harris) and a young hopeful, the Schoflield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett). The Kid, still inexperienced in the bounty hunting game, calls upon the help of an old pro, Will Munny (Clint Eastwood), a reputedly ruthless gunman who has committed his share of dastardly deeds. Now, living the twilight of his life, he embarks on one last mission, this time to right some wrongs, calling on the help of an old friend, Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman).
Unforgiven‘s story is steeped in plenty of western tradition. There are vile antagonists worthy of the viewer’s scorn. A brooding protagonist whom the audience quickly understands is quite the big bad ass but only demonstrates his ruthless efficiency in the moments which call for it. Damsels are in distress. The landscape are beautiful. The score fits right in. The beauty and horror of the grand old west are constantly juxtaposed in Eastwood’s beloved film, therefore solidifying its place in western lore for its recognizable qualities. All the while adhering to many of the genre’s tropes, Unforgiven explores and in some cases even flips those very same tropes on their heads, giving them a spin viewers do not frequently witness. Just when it appears a character shall follow a specific, familiar and reassuring pattern, the film will either pull the rug under their feet or at the very least tint the action with some extra depth, revealing something with greater resonance underneath the facade.
Who other than Clint Eastwood to play a gun slinging character whose reputation precedes him? A character, when under duress, can fight with the best of them and possibly shoot better than all of them? That information immediately rings a bell. The Dollars trilogy, Pale Rider, The Outlaw Josey Wales are prime examples. He plays a very similar character in Unforgiven, once again the protagonist, naturally, only by now his character, who honestly comes across as an amalgamation of the protagonists from the aforementioned films, is self described as past his prime. Were that all, Will Munny would still be an interesting character no doubt, especially as played by Eastwood, but nothing completely original or out of the ordinary. Where Eastwood goes the extra mile in the characterization, along with of course screenwriter David Webb Peoples, is in making Will explicitly remorseful of his past. While time has elapsed since his past misadventures and many of the people he wronged are presumably either dead or far away, he himself cannot, or simply appears incapable of letting go of said past. He would like nothing more than to bury it, and probably did the best he could at doing just that, what with a marriage, some kids, a pig farm and all. The problem is that his mind refuses to let go of the past. Unless he is struck with a severe case of Alzheimer’s, Will is condemned to mull over his reckless and unfortunate actions. When the Schofield Kid approaches him with an offer to hunt down some scoundrels for money, hurtful emotions are brought up. Smartly, the film never resorts to flashbacks. What the viewer can ascertain from the character’s past is conveyed strictly through Eastwood’s facial expressions and dialogue. There is a lot to be said about the fact that, when attempting to mount his steed and seeing that the beast is unwilling to support Will on its back, the protagonist explains to his two onlooking children that the horse’s behaviour is merely further condemnation for his past life. Logically, this makes no sense at all, it is crazy talk. Yet, it is pretty evident that Will Munny is no loon, therefore proposing the notion that he has never forgiven himself and is conjuring up this bizarre, stupid excuse.
Try as he might for things to develop otherwise, the story ultimately takes enough twists and turns so as to leave Will as the sole figure who can stand up to Little Bill Daggett and his deputes. The man who worked so hard at being a simple folk, as kind and gentle as he can, melts away in the final frames of the film. Out comes the merciless outlaw who kills with ease, leaving virtually no one behind who did not have it coming, save perhaps the annoying biographer W. W. Beauchamp (Saul Rubinek), but only because he does not actually have a firearm in his hands. There is nothing honourable about how Will finishes off his opposites in the climax. It is brutal. The look in his eyes and the warning he dictates to those outside the tavern where the shootout took place is one of a cruel avenger, not a saviour. Has a hero saved the day, or has a villain merely warned a town not to take too many chances with its vile behaviour? Granted, the film’s lead bad guy Little Bill is dead, but has the actual good guy killed him, or possibly someone operating from a far, far more miserable moral standpoint? The only saving grace of the ending is that Will does not continue pouring liquor for himself and go off on a tear, but rather return home to his two children. Eastwood brings all the toughness of the characters we have come to love throughout the years to the forefront, yet there is a legitimate mean streak about how he plays the character. It is a spectacularly calculated performance. Right when his character should exert some catharsis in the audience, he is more frightening than anything else.
The fact of the matter is the he cannot shut up about his past once the mission begins. His old partner and friend Ned Logan, on the other hand, seems to have quite comfortably turned the page. From the very first scene in which he is introduced, there is almost a calm happy-go-lucky attitude about him. In no way does he appear vile, dangerous or aggressive. Yet it is made clear that the two were partners at one point. Even when the trio are around a camp fire at night and Will regrettably recollects his history , Ned simply nods and agrees that his friend was pretty crazy in those days, but rather nonchalantly, as if only remotely interested in the matter. Ned is evidently content with his lot in life and happily lives his modest little life in the woods with his wife. Some encouragement was required to get him to tag along for the hunt, but he acquiesces eventually. This is the type of role Morgan Freeman was born to play. Calm and wise. Who would not want Morgan Freeman as their partner while roaming the plains? Interestingly enough however, when it seems entirely likely that he will take the first step towards accomplishing the task they set out to do in his own quiet, professional way, he relinquishes. In fact, as the viewers soon discover, he was absolutely the wrong man for the job. Because Ned had successfully abandoned the past he cannot kill any longer. Because he cannot kill he leaves the party, and because he leaves the party Little Bill’s deputes find him, bring him to Bill where the latter whips him to death. The most level headed character in the entire film, the only one who refuses to kill, suffers most grisly fate.
The Schofield Kid is the rambunctious, overly excitable young buck who wants a shot at infamy and fortune with his trusty pistol. For such a green fellow, a perceptive audience member can smell something fishy. This chap might be all show without anything to back it up, a factor which is brought up shortly thereafter when Ned and Will discern that the Kid is nearly blind. At this stage, the perception is that he is eager to kill the devils who committed the crime and kick start his career as a bounty hunter, but either his trigger happy finger or poor eye sight will be his own undoing and by extension put the group in a heap of trouble. The inexperienced youth who believes to be a hot shot proves anything but. Fair is fair and it should be noted that he does get to kill one of the two sought after hoodlums, albeit somewhat clumsily, but he does factually pull the deed off. In fact, he and Will (by this stage Ned has abandoned the party) make their escape from the scoundrel’s partners unscathed. The subsequent revelation is a wonderful bit of mature character development. The Schofield Kid, sitting against a large tree as Will stands nearby, is drinking out of a bottle. He starts gloating nervously about the murder he has committed only for the thin veneer of pride to subside in favour of shock and most of all shame. As tears roll down his cheeks Will tells him that he’ll avenge Ned’s death without him. All the boasting in the world cannot prepare a man for the true act of taking another person’s life. Bravado is easily shattered and quite honestly that is perfectly fine for it is a very human result. The Kid can go home and that he does, perhaps his tail between his legs, but he won’t be committing acts of such villainy any time soon. Realization of truth through unspeakable shame, unforgivable actions. What a way to go out.
Part 2 is coming soon!