Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven is a film with a lot on its mind. On top of the story at hand, it’s a film concerned with decades worth of American westerns, their overly simplistic plots, and their impacts on both society and cinema. Many of them tell generalized stories where morality is a black and white issue. There are broadly drawn heroes and villains. You won’t find that in Unforgiven, which serves as Eastwood’s final Western. And arguably his biggest accomplishment as a director and actor.
It’s 1880. We’re dropped in the small town of Big Whiskey, Wyoming, a remarkably unremarkable frontier with everything a cowboy could ask for: a gin-mill, a whorehouse, an undertaker, a barbershop, and a whole lot of nothing in between. Presiding over the town is Sheriff “Little Bill” Daggett (Gene Hackman). Not much gets by him as he rules the land with a stern sense of justice. In another movie, he would not only be the central focus but probably the hero.
However, this is William Munny’s (Eastwood) world. Munny is a retired vigilante now working on a hog farm, raising two children following the relatively recent death of his wife. Summoning him out of retirement is news that a drunk and irate customer at the Big Whiskey whorehouse repeatedly slashed a prostitute (Anna Thomson) across the face with a blade, rendering her permanently disfigured. The only reason Munny is sought out is because the fellow women at the brothel are shocked by Little Bill’s non-action. He demands the attacker pay their handler a certain number of horses and that’s it. No jail-time, no whipping, and no justice for the injured.
Munny begrudgingly accepts the offer of the women, who agree to pay $1,000 to whomever assassinates those responsible. He’s summoned by “The Schofield Kid” (Jaimz Woolvett), who is in search of a more experienced partner to aid him in the task. Once he agrees, he recruits Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman), and the three have a solid unit. As they’re en route, we cut to Big Whiskey once again, where a gunslinger named English Bob (Richard Harris) arrives along with his biographer W.W. Beauchamp (Saul Rubinek). His efforts to exact revenge are met with brutal blows from Little Bill and a night in the pokey. While English Bob lay beaten bloody in his jail-cell, Little Bill relays to Beauchamp some history of the West on top of lessons regarding the difficulty of killing.
Unforgiven is not the first revisionist western, but it may indeed be the most accomplished. Screenwriter David Webb Peoples (Blade Runner) shows William Munny in the final stage of his life, which theoretically should be his brightest act yet. Instead, he’s weathered and worn. Not so much alive because of his skills, but because he was lucky enough to have gotten out. He’s not merely disturbed by his past; he’s deeply pained by it. We learn of some of his past actions overtime, but we’re not given the luxury of seeing them unfold. We come to realize that’s for the better.
The idea of “justice” is a running theme in Unforgiven. In more ordinary works of the genre that would heal to conventionality, Eastwood and Peoples examine the unbalanced and often unfair nature of justice on the frontier. Justice is delivered through the end of a loaded gun, and the result is one of the most honest and inglorious examinations of cold-blooded murder in any film I’ve ever witnessed. When Munny, Ned, and the Kid catch up to the men responsible, they kill them in a cowardly manner. They find themselves punished in frightening moments of human helplessness. One uses his dying breaths to cry for a drink of water. Another isn’t given any kind of a chance, capped in an outhouse in his most vulnerable state. These killings happen far enough apart from one another that it gives the three men time to think about what they’ve done. The lengthy time in between allows each death to linger in the mind of the viewer as well. You come to feel at least a fraction of the pain that lies in Munny’s moist green eyes.
Onto Little Bill. He’s not your typical corrupt sheriff. You can argue his move to dole out a light sentence to the prostitute’s attackers was cowardly. But as a person, he’s not your irredeemable villain. Big Whiskey is his town and he’s content on upholding a sense of law and order. He opts for a degree of fairness that prioritizes integrity strong enough to be noble, while on the other hand, firm enough to discourage repeat offenders/offenses. The wisdom he imparts on Beauchamp is its own demystification of age-old tropes. He has no problem dismantling some of the biographer’s long-held historical beliefs. The same way Eastwood uses Unforgiven as a repudiation for a genre predicated on myth-making and convenient posturing for far too long.
Consider one of Eastwood’s flagship works, Dirty Harry; the character for which he’s most famous. Those films were the embodiment of shoot-first, ask-questions-later vigilante pictures that celebrated violence as the ultimate form of justice. He played a character who seldom suffered consequences for the brutality he committed. As is the case with all vigilantes, they do more harm than good: they incite fear amongst the innocent and no matter their body-count, whatever sin was committed will stand and linger long enough to haunt the victim(s). Not to mention for the vigilante, who then has a whole new handful of sins to process.
Every death in Unforgiven has gravity and sadness. Peoples doesn’t move to the next sequence after quickly brushing its hands of the newly deceased. We bear witness to men who suffer the real and indelible consequences of violence, as their actions are now etched into their minds and consciousness for the rest of their lives.
The idea of justice is compounded in the final third act, when Ned faces the punishment for Munny’s actions. Ned is made an example of by Little Bill, and Munny returns to Big Whiskey to see his friend on cruel display and finally supplant the sheriff in the film’s loudest, bloodiest scene. The end result? Nothing good for anyone involved. The town of Big Whiskey is no better off, losing its best leader. The poor prostitute is still disfigured. Munny has broken his own promises of not to drink and kill any longer. And ultimately, Munny’s closest friend is dead and gone.
While Unforgiven hacks away at the sexiest attributes of westerns, it is an undeniably gorgeous picture, aesthetically speaking. Cinematographer Jack N. Green — a longtime collaborator of Eastwood’s — gifts this movie some of the most lavish photography seen in any film of the genre, handling daybreak, torrential rainfall, and nightfall as unique opportunities to shed some character on what is another sleepy ranch town. Bookending the film are dusky long-shots of Munny’s ranch that set the tone early. This is not a film in a rush, and it’s not hard to find the visual beauty that lies in an otherwise ugly story.
No other Eastwood movie has seen him give such a condemnation of his past characters, much less that of an entire genre. It’s why Unforgiven can reasonably seen as one of the genre’s best, beyond being the crown jewel of Eastwood’s dense, enviable filmography.
NOTE: As of this writing, Unforgiven is available to stream on HBO Max.
Starring: Clint Eastwood, Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman, Jaimz Woolvett, Richard Harris, Saul Rubinek, and Anna Thomson. Directed by: Clint Eastwood.
Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!