Unforgiven; or, I’ll Never Forgive the Blood-Soaked Retribution Blah, Blah, Blah Bits

Don’t get me wrong. I would recommend Clint Westwood’s Unforgiven (1992), even if it was just because people who don’t like westerns say they like this western. To them, I’m like, um, this is a total western, so I don’t get what you’re saying, but whatever–it kicked the genre in its dusty ass at a time when silver-screen oaters were pale imitations of themselves.

The plot is like many other westerns, especially those starring Eastwood’s squint. Will Munney (Eastwood) is a one-time killer-turned-farmer/teetotaler who takes one last job—shooting both a man who assaulted a prostitute and his partner, who didn’t. He’s started down that path by a vicious-seeming punk that goes by “Schofield Kid,” on account of the brand of his gun. He’s so mean he makes Munney, who is shown covered in pig doo-doo, look like a pathetic has-been. Maybe that’s what gets Munney moving; maybe it’s the reward money that would give widower Munney and his kids enough of a stake to start over.

This is one aspect of the film that marks it as a modern western: Is Munney a bad bad man? A good bad man? A bad good man? While other westerns take a stand on this issue for their heroes–whether the hero in question is eeeevil to the core or a nice guy deep down–Unforgiven rides Munney all over the map.  He shows a somewhat courtly side as he consoles the scarred prostitute, saying he would totally want a “free one” from her, but for the memory of his wife. And a cold, murdering side (spoiler alert) when he gut-shoots the hapless partner who had tried to make amends to the assaulted prostitute. Munney’s as ambiguous an antihero as one can hope for in the era of reclaimed history.

But back to the plot, buckos. Munney brings along his longtime partner (Morgan Freeman) and they travel with the Schofield Kid to the prostitute’s town, which is controlled by Little Bill, played by the always brilliant Gene Hackman. The killing goes as planned, but when Munney’s partner is whipped by Little Bill, Munney downs his demon whiskey and goes on the rampage. So far, so business as usual. Bang bang.

Little Bill Daggett: Now all you gotta do is pull the trigger, mister.

But what makes this a modern western worth seeing is how it portrays how little the legend of the West resembles reality. Rain douses the picturesque western landscape and turns it to cold mud. Like us, the writer W. W. Beauchamp, following the aging English Bob (Richard Harris, looking both noble and ravaged) to document his escapades for posterity and make some money, is drawn away from glorious, heroic myth into real violence, which, being real, is neither glorious nor heroic. I’d piss my trousers too if I were faced with Gene Hackman’s cold eyes.

Here’re some MAJOR spoilers below so avoid if you haven’t seen the flick.

The Schofield Kid: It don’t seem real… how he ain’t gonna never breathe again, ever…

No one is who they seem. English Bob is a blowhard who gets kicked nearly to death like a tramp. Munney’s partner freezes and can’t finish the job. The boastful punk can’t see to shoot and has never shot anyone ever–his moniker is as makey-uppy as a little kid’s pretend game. Once the writer finds out that Little Bill is a real gunslinger of legend, he also discovers–with Hackman’s smile that doesn’t quite get to his eyes–that dangerous gunslingers are also psychopaths.

Will Munney: I’m just a fella now. I ain’t no different than anyone else no more.

All along, Munney swears he is no longer a killer. His wife changed him. He’s stopped drinking. He gets nightmares about the men he’s slaughtered. Yet when the guns do get strapped on–he needs to to revenge his friend–he doesn’t spend much time thinking about it. He doesn’t talk about what he’s going to do–he just does it.

Blam. Blam. Blam. Blood. Brains. Intestines.

Repulsive, yet I cheered like a vengeance-seeking eye-for-eye Old Testament prophet. Turns out that this mild-mannered pig farmer is the most dangerous man in the West. (Although the story says, as a sort of epilogue, that he might have left the high plains to have a successful life as a grocer with his kids. But that’s all nicey-nice denouement that pales in comparison with the fire and brimstone of his “Any sumbitch takes a shot at me, I’m not only gonna kill him, but I’m gonna kill his wife, all his friends, and burn his damn house down.”)

Strawberry Alice: Just because we let them smelly fools ride us like horses don’t mean we gotta let ‘em brand us like horses. Maybe we ain’t nothing but whores but we, by god, we ain’t horses.

The only people who stay the same from start to finish are the bewildered and helpless townspeople; they’re the deputies who get drawn into a bigger fight than they imaged; they’re the shopkeepers who allow Little Bill to whip a man like a dog; they’re the working women who have to live with the fact that they’re worth less than a horse. You know, people like us, who just try our hardest to make it through the workweek and get a little surprised when things turn to crap.

It’s a western about about how myth is a pussy compared to reality.

So when the end scene arrives, with guns blazing and killing off every single bad guy, with the townspeople cowed and the prostitute whose face was cut up and avenged swooning at Munney in St. Theresa ecstasy–you understand why I was a little disappointed?

All that ambiguity. All that chasing down the mystical legend to scary, hard truth. And in the end, all we get is the same old superhero on a horse.

Okay, I can’t fault that, I suppose. At least Eastwood always looks good on a horse.

 

 

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