Clint Eastwood redefined the western genre so it is only fitting that his final film in which he proverbially rides into the sunset would end up deconstructing the genre piece by piece. In Unforgiven (1992) there is no noble hero, no villains in black hats, and killing a man is something that has a lasting impact. The film earned Eastwood two Oscars, for Best Picture and Best Director, but it is Gene Hackman who won in the performance category for his role as one of the most violent men he has ever played. He also happens to play the sheriff.
The first time I started watching Unforgiven was when it was playing on TV when I was living in South America in the late 90s. Unfortunately it was playing in Spanish and it was already halfway started, and when it got to the more violent scenes I think I might have been a tad too young for them. A few years later, I am living in Quebec and I do the old fashion thing of renting the DVD so I can finally watch it from beginning to end. DVD bonus: it turns out it is extremely difficult to shoot dialogue scenes when the actors are on their horses so they would fake it by sitting on benches while the camera crew would shoot above their waists to give the illusion they were on horses. The more you know.
Eastwood’s character of William Munny seems to represent the accumulation of every other western character he has played. His reputation as a cold-blooded killer is legendary across the west, but in his old age Munny has sworn off killing and alcohol, choosing instead the life of a peaceful farmer so he can raise his two children. However making an honest living is sometimes more expensive than living by the gun, so when young and ambitious gunslinger the Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett) comes to him with an offer of a hefty reward in exchange for killing people who have it coming, Munny reluctantly agrees for the sake of his children’s financial future. Along with fellow retired gunfighter Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman) they ride off to collect the bounty, sleeping under the stars and missing their blankets.
The reward in question has not been set up by the government or even a local sheriff, but by prostitutes in the town of Big Whiskey who are unhappy with the punishment two men have received for slashing the face of a young working girl. The two men are guilty no doubt about it, but the local sheriff, “Little” Bill Daggett (Hackman) decides to give compensation to the brothel owner instead and lets the two men go.
Little Bill believes in law and order, just as long as he is judge, jury, and executioner. When bounty hunter English Bob (Richard Harris) arrives in town to collect the bounty Little Bill arrests him for illegally carrying guns in town, but then proceeds to brutally beat him in front of the town in order to discourage anyone else wanting to take the law into their own hands. Travelling with English Bob is writer W.W Beauchamp (Saul Rubinek), the kind of writer responsible for romanticising the Old West. Wanting to see a legend in action, he chooses to stay with Little Bill. Beware what you wish for.
Fans of good old-fashioned shoot-em up might find Unforgiven a bit slow at times, and find that there a lot more discussion about killing than actually killing. Throughout the film Munny is very reluctant to pick up a gun and a whiskey bottle, afraid of what it will do to him and to other people. The Schofield Kid on the other hand is very eager to get to the violence, but when the shooting does take place he realizes it is not as easy as the legends say. As Munny tells him “It’s a hell of a thing, killing a man.”
Once Munny is eventually pushed over the edge and takes that damning sip of whiskey, the monster is unleashed. There is nothing heroic in his actions, just pure anger as he shoots unarmed men and threatens to do terrible things to anyone who gets in his way. This is not a hero killing the bad guys; it’s a gunslinger doing what he does best. Once the smoke clears there is not much poetry left in the west.
After a movie like that there was nothing left for Eastwood to add to the western genre, but the film’s influence cans still be felt years later. There was a Japanese remake in 2013, unseen by me, although I did read the graphic series Preacher by Garth Ennis and there is clearly a lot of William Munny in the character the Saint of Killers. Do yourself a favour and read those books in preparation of the TV adaptation. It will blow your mind.