Unforgiven is perhaps the best argument for Clint Eastwood as a savvier, craftier and more complicated filmmaker than the one many consider him to be. It’s a commentary on movie violence, yes, and a meta riff on much of Eastwood’s own career, but what ultimately elevates the 1992 Best Picture winner is the way it avoids being a diatribe about any of those things and instead ends as a festering challenge.
The story, from screenwriter David Webb Peoples, is built upon the classic Western structure that propped up much of Eastwood’s early career: after a violent cowboy brutally defaces a prostitute, her colleagues pool together their resources to hire out revenge. Answering the call is William Munny (Eastwood), a former killer who had reformed some 10 years back. Now, though, after the death of his pious wife and the failing of his pig farm, he’s desperate for money and reverts to what he knows best.
Munny’s wife is never seen – the opening image is of Munny at her grave, in silhouette against a lurid sunset – yet it’s appropriate that the onscreen text starts with her tale. Unforgiven is notably attuned to the women who surround (and often precipitate) the narrative. Make no mistake, this is a Clint Eastwood Western – dominated by men and their guns – but it’s one that also continues to return to the faces of the women, particularly those of Delilah (Anna Levine), the prostitute who was attacked, and Alice (Frances Fisher), the firebrand ringleader of the women who refuses to let the act go unpunished. There are other, smaller but telling touches, as when Munny’s friend Ned (Morgan Freeman) leaves his homestead to join him and the camera lingers on the face of Ned’s wife (Cherrillene Cardinal). Considering it comes from one of the grizzled veterans of Hollywood masculinity, you could almost consider Unforgiven a feminist Western.
When Munny turns mythical, Unforgiven forgoes an easy redemption story and instead becomes a re-descent into depravity.
Fisher and Freeman are just two of the many, crucial supporting players who make Unforgiven something of a 1990s Casablanca. Matter-of-fact and ingratiating, Freeman’s Ned is a light counterpoint to the stoic seriousness of Eastwood’s Munny. Also on hand is Gene Hackman as the sadistic sheriff Little Bill, who uses a bull whip to keep his town in order and has no patience for the bounty hunters who start showing up in hopes of winning the kill money. Among these is Richard Harris’ English Bob, a genteel murderer partial to monarchies. (“Why not shoot the president?” he asks upon learning of James Garfield’s assassination.)
When Little Bill squares off against English Bob, Unforgiven begins its deconstruction of movie violence in earnest. After deputies have taken away Bob’s guns, Bill proceeds to mercilessly kick him in the street as the whole town watches. For each blow that Bob receives, Eastwood cuts away to at least two shots of horrified onlookers – those who are disgusted even as their town is being “protected.” What’s more, the sequence ends with Bill unsteady and unsure, alone in the muddy street. Bob lies on the ground defeated, but Bill holds no victory in his hands.
Much of what follows similarly undercuts our expectations of how movie violence should work. Bill himself, after reading a fictionalized rendition of one of Bob’s killings in a dime novel, tells the author his own eyewitness account of the night in question – and it’s a tale not of bravery, but dumb luck and cowardice. Ned, with the target of the prostitutes’ righteous violence in his gun sight, falters, as a lifetime of death finally becomes too much. Munny, often in the glow of a campfire, recalls the gruesome details of his victims’ deaths, only to have Ned half-heartedly assure him, “You ain’t like that no more.” And then there’s Munny’s admission that he can’t verify the legendary stories about himself because most of those years he was drunk. (One of the meta layers here is how the tall tales of the Old West, like the movies, often made violence seem more glamorous than it was.)
All of this is well and good, but what of Unforgiven’s final moments, when Munny unleashes his inner Eastwood and takes out the bad guys with a burst of invincible fury? Ah, but here’s where the film becomes brilliant. When Munny turns mythical (for the first time, we hear his spurs on the soundtrack), Unforgiven forgoes an easy redemption story and instead becomes a re-descent into depravity. Munny becomes, in that moment, the personification of the sort of movie violence that the film had up to this point been undermining. For two hours, Unforgiven shows us how violence – even righteous violence – rings false, then the movie serves it up on a silver platter, delivered by The Man With No Name himself. This isn’t hypocrisy, but a test. Which means that if you find the ending of Unforgiven triumphant in the least, you’ve failed the film.