“Deserve’s got nothin’ to do with it.”
Even after the classic Western was replaced by the revisionist Western, there were some romantic and, frankly, false notions about the old West floating around in the 90s. Notions that heroes acted with honor, sheriffs were the good guys, and gunslingers were unstoppable bad-asses with superhuman aiming ability. Unforgiven, directed by Western legend Clint Eastwood (Gran Torino, Million Dollar Baby) and starring Clint Eastwood, Morgan Freeman, and Gene Hackman, shattered those notions. Justice was determined by who was willing to pay for it. A hero who wanted to stay alive wouldn’t pass up a chance to shoot an enemy in the back. And, perhaps most strikingly, old gunslingers weren’t these invincible superheroes. This is a very well-written modern Western that’s both a deconstruction of and an homage to the genre and it’s a great watch.
The story follows Bill Munny, a former outlaw who got married, settled down, and is now an aging pig farmer with his two kids. (His wife has since passed on.) When a group of prostitutes sees one of their own assaulted and cut up by a patron and the perpetrators get off with scarcely a punishment, they put a bounty out on the men who hurt them. The Schofield Kid, a young hotshot eager to get the bounty, tries to recruit Bill, who initially refuses, but later changes his mind when he realizes he needs the money. He brings his old partner Ned Logan along and they travel up to Big Whisky, Wyoming to get justice for the women.
It’s a hell of a thing, killing a man. Take away all he’s got and all he’s ever gonna have.
Unforgiven is a bit like The Princess Bride in that it sets up something fairly typical for the genre, but veers off course and ends with something drastically different, very nearly the opposite of the source material. Bill Munny is a respectable man and The Schofield Kid is a wild young gunslinger with a cool nickname and some romantic notions about being a bounty hunter. But things are slightly off. We see the prostitute get assaulted in the beginning of the film, but the stories of the injustice don’t quite match up with the reality. Bill and his partner Ned have trouble getting on their horses, let alone hunting dangerous men. Killing a man takes a toll on one’s emotions and it’s not easy for anyone. And the film gets darker and more morally gray as it goes on. Many classic Westerns end with the hero riding off into the sunset, literally going into the light; this one appropriately ends with a cowboy riding off into bleak darkness, and there’s little light left by the end.
This film takes its time building the world and characters, and it pays off. Even minor characters are imbued with depth and personality, and the world is complex and rich. As a result of all this exploration, and also partly because the protagonists (don’t call them heroes) are struggling to be the gunslingers they once were, the film can feel slow, especially in the first half. If that turns you off to the film, stick with it—I promise, the ending brings it all together and has more excitement and character development than many other Westerns. This is one of those films that you really have to watch in its entirety to understand. I wouldn’t say it’s hard to understand, but its true nature is only revealed in the end.
Unforgiven is a great deconstruction of the Western genre, but still manages to be a great Western in its own right, never venturing into parody territory. Character development is great for both the protagonists and antagonists, and this small frontier town in Wyoming is full of interesting characters. The film also has some good things to say about the nature of good and evil and sheds a light on the not-so-great things about the old West. I wouldn’t recommend this as an introduction to the Western genre, but if you’re a fan of Westerns at all, this is an essential film.
Director: Clint Eastwood