What are the consequences of violence? Is it always bad, or is it sometimes a necessary evil? These are a few of the themes Clint Eastwood works out in his revisionist Western Unforgiven. While not his directorial debut by a long shot (he had 15 movies and even an episode of television under his belt before this), Unforgiven is certainly the film that announced him as one of the great directors. While his subsequent work has been . . . a little uneven, it’s Unforgiven’s nuanced take on violence, and the toll it takes on those who do it, that makes it a classic.
If Hollywood legend is to believe, Eastwood bought the script and sat on it until he aged into the role of Will Munny, whom we meet tending to two children and a handful of sick farm animals. He doesn’t seem to be a “meaner-than-hell, cold-blooded, damn killer” in the words of the Schoefield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett), who’s come looking for a partner. He isn’t; his dead wife has reformed him, so much so that he can barely shoot a gun or ride a horse anymore. Nonetheless, he accepts the offer for the good of his children. They’re soon joined by an old outlaw friend of Munny’s, Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman), on a mission to kill two cowboys in retribution for mutilating a prostitute. (The original screenplay was once titled The Cut Whore Killings which, while accurate, was mercifully changed.) Standing in their way is Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman), the sheriff charged with enforcing justice for the cutting and protecting the cowboys from various assassins. To say Eastwood and Hackman deliver some of their finest performances is an understatement; each adds even more shades of gray to already compromised characters. Freeman is typically good but understated and Woolvet holds his own along with the supporting players. But this Eastwood and Hackman’s show.
Technically, Unforgiven is classically shot, but not exactly groundbreaking. The best choice Eastwood makes is in the film’s prologue and epilogue: plain text over a striking image – pictured at the top of this post – accompanied by the film’s theme. Despite its simplicity, it nicely brackets the film and adds quite a bit of depth both the to the characters and the theme. But Eastwood has always been more of a blue collar director than a technician; his strength usually comes from his choice of material.
Here Unforgiven does not disappoint. Mainly using Munny and Daggett, but with occasional interjections from the supporting characters, Eastwood tries to pick his way through the moral dimensions of violence. Is it right that Daggett refuses to hang or even whip the cowboys, despite what they’ve done to a prostitute? “Ain’t you seen enough blood for one night?” he asks her friends as they pressure him for a harsher penalty. Is his brutal beating of a would-be assassin keeping the peace, or is it law and order run amok? (Supposedly Hackman based Daggett on LAPD chief Daryl Gates, fresh off the Rodney King beating and the LA riots.)
Munny, on the other hand, seems less convinced of his own righteousness. He’s constantly reminding anyone who’ll listen that he “ain’t like that no more,” and even when doing the assassination he’s been hired for, it’s clear his heart isn’t in it. (When someone explains that the guilty cowboy had it coming, he replies “We all got it comin’.”) That doesn’t stop him from confronting Daggett at the end of the film, when both men bring to bear everything they’re capable of. For Daggett, it’s the brutality of his worst impulses. For Munny, it’s largely the same, but used for something nobler than robbery and murder this time, or so he hopes.
To say Unforgiven is a slow burn is an understatement. Eastwood and Hackman only share the screen twice, and their confrontation barely takes up five minutes of its two hour plus running time. But when they do finally meet, all the work Eastwood has done examining not just their relationship with violence, but everyone’s, is worth the wait.