Director Clint Eastwood so thoroughly gulled me with this self-serious and anachronistic meditation on women’s issues and gun violence transposed to the 19th-century American frontier (1880 Wyoming, to be specific) that I took away a number of enduring misperceptions from it, chief among them that Eastwood embraced liberal/progressive values. It’s fair enough to say I like Unforgiven in the same way and for much the same reasons that I like the Star Trek franchise, particularly The Next Generation—for the earnest way it supplants toxic old myths and replaces them with new and convincing models (to me, the eternal political naïf and social optimist). As propaganda, one might say, putting a less pleasant spin on it.
It wasn’t until the last presidential election cycle that I finally said something that caused a friend to disabuse me of my sense of Eastwood (imagine if it had been this year when he turned up talking to an empty chair in prime time—how embarrassing for me!).
Twenty years on, it’s readily apparent that Unforgiven is more a picture about 1992 than 1880—or perhaps, more abstractly, about making Westerns in 1992 rather than 1939. The self-seriousness is written into practically every line and gesture. For all the sturdy structure and fine pacing and confidence of the storytelling, the two sets of values are so jarring in opposition to one another and our expectations—the look and feel of the rugged West where a man is a man vs. “c’mon people now, smile on your brother, everybody get together, try and love one another right now,” etc.—that it often comes across as stilted and affected. Yet I have seen Unforgiven many times and it rarely fails to work on me.
Unforgiven sets itself successfully to chipping in to the reinvention of the Western, an ongoing long-term project that started with notes of psychological realism after World War II, as with, for example, Winchester 73 (the Western, full disclosure, being a genre that has never much appealed to me in and of itself, though I often like the reinventions). As far as I know, no one in 1880 (and certainly no one in pre-WWII Westerns) thought much about abused prostitutes, gun violence, and killing in the sorts of overtly humanistic ways they are taken and discussed here. (I guess there’s The Ox-Bow Incident, but in a way that makes my point; it’s as much a liberal outlier as Unforgiven.) People may have had the feelings, or even something like the more general world view, but they didn’t talk these ways. I don’t believe that the conversations (or anything like them) occurring in this picture could possibly have happened in the 19th century.
When Unforgiven was still a new movie, I took it, as many did, as Eastwood’s quasi-apologia for the thoughtless brutalities of the shoot-’em-ups in the early part of his career, which extends all the way back to TV’s Rawhide in the late ’50s and ’60s and of course includes a few famous rounds with the stylized ultraviolence of Sergio Leone. But even if it is that, Eastwood had already been studiously rueful about the excesses of Western violence since at least High Plains Drifter, which in many ways is nearly as much a mannered fable. If I don’t always believe the elevated notes in Unforgiven of awe and respect for sweet sacred holy life evinced by these typical Western outlaws and cowboys and such, I can take the simple, morality-driven bent of the dialogue and action in those terms—as a fable, heavy-handed moral and all—because it is otherwise so expert at setting up the various crisscrossing confrontations of the second half that grow perilously more epic and titanic, never losing control of its powerful emotional center.
The picture also benefits from several great performances, starting with Eastwood himself, who by then, at 62, had lived so long with this grizzled man-with-no-name character that he puts it on like a favorite suit and goes to work sculpting something new out of it: William Munny, a bad man made pious by the love of a woman, who now wants only to own up to and meet his responsibilities. Munny keeps insisting, with a shrill pleading whine, “I ain’t like that no more. I don’t do those things anymore,” demonstrating with his words and actions both the desperation with which he clings to that idea of himself, painfully aware he is a widower now with two young children to raise, and the depths of its necessity to him.
Gene Hackman as a legendary sharpshooter-turned-sheriff and cruel but fair arbiter of justice in a fictional small town in Wyoming, is clearly having a ball. He cackles, chortles, and carries on as he handles the miscreants populating his town, explaining himself as he does so to a handy-for-the-exposition writer of fanciful fiction he picks up along the way, played by Saul Rubinek, who is terrific in the role. Morgan Freeman as Ned, Munny’s long-time partner, is his usual welcome warm and leavening presence. Richard Harris as English Bob, a preening and obnoxious British bounty hunter, is fine, and Jaimz Woolvett, as the Schofield Kid, is charmingly full of bluster and braggadocio.
But one always comes back to the odd humanistic tone here, whose themes are sounded like a guitar with one string badly tuned. In many ways the principals here feel more like movie versions of Vietnam vets than cowboys. They are unusually open, even startlingly so, about their innermost fears. They wax philosophical about the emotional realities of killing. And moral agony is freely expressed by one and all. Ned has a breakdown and can’t pull the trigger to kill his victim. When the Schofield Kid kills a man he gets drunk and sobs about it later, then gives away his gun and swears he’s never going to kill again. I don’t believe much of any of this and don’t see how anyone could.
Thus, in many ways, the dirty little secret of Unforgiven is that it functions most effectively as a revenge story. When Munny decides he must, as a matter of moral expedience, go back to his evil ways for a few more errands of death the picture and all the groundwork laid for it come most vitally alive, all its most compelling elements cohere: Eastwood the calculating cold-blooded killer adept we have known for decades, all the players stepping up to the big finish, the narrative corkscrewing its elements into their ultimate shape in the resolution, the photography with the dark-brown cast of its nighttime interiors, and the ultimate clash of philosophies played out like legendary battles of yore, with pistols and shotguns, every key point of it perfectly foreshadowed and ready for execution. For everything weird and off-key about it (I think it may not be aging well), in the end Unforgiven remains an enormously satisfying picture to watch play out.
JPK is an arts journalist and professional writer and editor who owns and operates the blog Can’t Explain, which covers movies, music, and books of the past.