It's hard to accept that Clint Eastwood's brutal Western, Unforgiven, was released 25 years ago in 1992. I recall seeing the film in the theater. Only a few people were present: I was alone and there were two couples, hip young professionals that I slightly knew. At the climax of the movie, Clint Eastwood's tormented assassin snarls that he will kill anyone who opposes him "and kill your wife and burn down your house." The couples began to laugh loudly and one of the men, imitating Eastwood's distinctive whispered menace, growled -- "I'll kill your dog too." I thought that was pretty funny, although profoundly destructive to the effect that the director was aiming to achieve and I recall that quip better than the actual ending of the film. This story illustrates, however, the curious intensity of Unforgiven, the aspect of the film that makes it strangely fascinating -- Eastwood seems to be doing penance for three decades of mayhem on the screen, innumerable bad guys blown away by .45 magnum or six-shooter or shot-gun. The film has an exaggerated, almost masochistic, abject quality. Eastwood's anti-gun film partakes in the same hyperbole that characterized his action films. He's aggressively, savagely, violently anti-violence. When his character, Bill Munny, gets the fever and almost dies, he has visions of death hunting him down, a snake-eyed death with a head full of worms -- "I don't want to die," Munny moans plaintively and, then, cries out: "I've done too many bad things." And, in that line, we inevitably hear Eastwood's mature regret with respect to some of his earlier films, most pointedly, the pictures featuring the cold-eyed sociopathic killer, "Dirty" Harry Callahan. Unforgiven is an undeniably powerful film, and, indeed, deeply disturbing on several levels. It's also so relentlessly designed to indict the genre that it's not really much fun -- Unforgiven is the ultimate anti-western and it's so thoroughgoing in its savaging of the genre, so over-the-top with respect to the penance that Eastwood makes the movie perform, that it effectively kills off the form. The body-count in Unforgiven includes the genre of the Western. And, if you instinctively love Westerns, this film may fill you with dismay.
Unforgiven begins with tableaux of the lone prairie and a man digging a grave. The image was a cliché when it was first shown, probably around 1908 and Eastwood makes the picture kitsch by staging the scene against a scarlet sunset. It's convincingly familiar and, therefore, accentuates the body-blow we'll experience in the next sequence -- a cowboy mutilates a prostitute by slashing at her face repeatedly; his partner pulls him off the woman. A crowd of whores demands justice but the hardbitten sheriff simply proposes a humiliating transaction -- the two cowboys implicated in the woman's mutilation will pay six horses to the brothel-keeper in reparation for their damage to his property. Appalled by this outcome, the prostitutes pool their funds into a considerable amount of money, a thousand dollars, and somehow contrive to attract paid assassins to their village, Big Whisky to gun down the offending cow-hands. (The manner by which the prostitutes induce hired guns to come to Big Whisky is left unclear -- although the viewer doesn't perceive this narrative lapse as problematic.) Bill Munny (Eastwood) is a pig farmer in Nebraska living on a desolate and impoverished acreage. Munny was formerly a very bad hombre but he has stopped drinking and reformed. It was Munny that we saw in the first scene burying his saintly wife, the woman who has reformed him. (Munny, we learn, was apparently a railroad bandit and once blew up a train killing several women and children.) A psychopathic kid shows up and invites Munny to join him in riding to Big Whisky, killing the two cow-hands, and earning the thousand dollar bounty. Munny agrees and, on the way to the village, visits his old partner, Ned, played by Morgan Freeman. Ned agrees to join him and they set forth on their murderous mission. The film's opening includes an aspect that troubles audiences and that provides a precursor for the increasingly problematic events that will ensue as this allegory about revenge and justice proceeds -- Munny simply abandons his two small children (they seem to be about ten and six) on the farm to pursue this mercenary endeavor. This seems completely irresponsible. This plot element, of course, could be very easily eliminated -- all you need is a kindly old-timer like Walter Brennan or Slim Pickens to stay on the ranch and defend the children. But the film insists upon the fact that Eastwood's character just leaves the kids, telling them to "kill a few chickens" and that he will be back in a couple weeks. Obviously, the lure of some old-time violence and gunplay is so powerful that Eastwood's character is unable to resist -- and, even, willing to leave his children to undertake this deadly mission. And, this, is despite the fact that his skills as a gunfighter have deteriorated to the point that he can barely hit anything with his pistol. Furthermore, he's apparently forgotten how to ride a horse, can't control his animal, and falls repeatedly off the big white horse. (Death rides a white horse and so does Clint Eastwood -- recall Pale Rider.)
The story is complicated by a subplot involving a murderous British killer, English Bob, renowned for mowing down "Chinamen." English Bob (played flamboyantly by Richard Harris) goes to Big Whisky with a writer who is chronicling his exploits for dime novels. Big Whisky's sheriff, played by Gene Hackman, brutally beats up English Bob and, even, sadistically threatens to shoot the wounded man and his hapless bespectacled side-kick. This sequence establishes that the law in Big Whisky, played by Hackman's sheriff, with a small army of deputies, is itself vicious -- we don't learn Hackman's motives and he remains rather enigmatic. No one is allowed to carry a gun in Big Whisky except for the sheriff and his minions and anyone caught breaching this law is brutally pistol-whipped and kicked to a bloody pulp. (Eastman's Bill Munny suffers the same fate as English Bob when he first ventures into town.) Hackman isn't venal and we don't see him stealing or monopolizing business in the tiny village. Like Eastwood's character, and like people such as Wyatt Earp, he seems to be some kind of reformed gangster himself. He lives in a cabin that he has built incompetently with rain pouring through his ceiling -- it's rainy season during much of this film -- and, with his big goofy grin, seems oddly endearing when he isn't torturing people or kicking in their ribs. English Bob's sidekick stays on with the sheriff, banking that there will be more violence to report from him than the Brit -- the obviously Jewish writer stands, quite clearly, for the money-men and producers at the studios such as Paramount who profit from the violence that Dirty Harry and his ilk commit.
Of course, the film is designed to chart a collision course between the brutal forces of law and order exemplified by Gene Hackman's sadistic sheriff and the equally brutal forces of mercenary revenge represented by Munny and his cohorts. The whores are unrelenting in their demand for violent retribution, although the woman actually mutilated by her cowboy customer seems strangely remote, a gentle soul who doesn't exactly condone all the violence done in her name. The film raises a number of ethical issues: can one implement violence in the name of an offended party who doesn't herself demand revenge? how is law and order related to revenge? is there any role for forgiveness in this scheme? doesn't revenge inevitably bring with it all sorts of unanticipated collateral effects? who is complicit in the whore's revenge, just the prostitutes or the whole town that created the conditions that must be revenged? What can be solved by violence? At every juncture, Eastwood directs the film to make the violence look petty and squalid. A scene in which Eastwood and his partners "dry-gulch" one of the cowboys, gut-shooting the young man who pulled his associate off the wounded prostitute is exemplary -- there's no attempt made to dramatize the scene. Eastwood and his fellow simply sit behind a mud hill. Freeman's character can't pull the trigger -- there is an instinctive revulsion against assassination -- and Munny has to shoot the man. Then, the characters simply shout at each other across a bleached badlands. The scene is shot so crudely that it looks like some kind of rehearsal -- and this is Eastwood's strategy. The bad guy, the knife-wielding psychopathic cowboy, is killed by the kid when the cowboy is defecating -- the boy, then, gets drunk, renounces his share of the bounty, and vows that his days as a gunslinger are over. This leaves Eastwood to manage the final bloodbath, a scene that is a little reminiscent of the showdown in the saloon in Shane -- except that Eastwood doesn't impose any mythic apparatus on the shootings at all. There's no real build-up, no suspense -- Eastwood's avenger just shows up with a gun, mutters a few threats, and starts shooting people. Although five people are killed in the last gunfight, it's not staged in a way to be thrilling -- rather, it's like some of the sword-play in Kurosawa's later samurai films: people get killed so fast you can't really see what is happening.
Eastwood's direction is spare and simple. He eschews most of the pleasures of the Western. Although there are beautiful vistas, we see them only infrequently and the mountain landscapes are not foregrounded. Most Western directors love the sight of horses crossing streams and rivers -- here there are a couple such shots but they don't dwell on the beauty implicit in such scenes: the horses splash through ankle deep water and that's that. The design of the film, the tiny corrupt village in the middle of nowhere, harkens back to such movies as William S. Hart's pioneering Hell's Hinges, a 1916 picture in which a brutalized cowboy seems to rise from the dead to destroy with bullets and fire the entire town that mistreated him. Everything is shot efficiently. When Gene Hackman's sheriff tortures Morgan Freeman by whipping him, Eastwood focuses on close-ups to avoid having to pay for bloody special effects showing the lash tearing its victim's flesh. He keeps the camera at a discrete distance, probably because he doesn't want to spend money solving the problem of how to show the whip actually slashing Freeman's back. In this respect, the direction is similar to what you would expect on a TV western, the genre where Eastwood cut his teeth playing the part of "Rowdy" Yates, "idiot of the plains" as the actor later called the character. TV solves problems by finding expressive and inexpensive ways to show action. Eastwood works in this vein, focusing on a couple of close-ups and some menacing dialogue to make his point. As Bill Munny, Eastwood doesn't really act at all -- but he doesn't have to; he has only a few lines and he can snarl them in a way that pleases the audience without making much effort to show any emotion other than homicidal, if cool, rage. However, the film's signature utterance: Eastwood describing a murder by saying -- "you take away all a man's got and all he's ever gonna get -- remains laconically impressive.
The movie has certain faults with respect to its realism. Most notably, the town of Big Whisky, which consists of about 12 structures in the middle of a mountain meadow, is far too small to support Gene Hackman's sheriff and his army of deputies. Similarly, one wonders where the whores get their customers -- there are about six of them and no one seems to live anywhere near this town. But the Western, like many of its kind, is an allegory and these questions don't really occur to you while you are watching the film.