When they’re wronged, most people feel an immediate need for justice to right that wrong. When someone steals, we put them in jail. When someone kills, a handful of states (in a barbaric practice) will kill in return. And while putting someone in jail can keep them from stealing again and executions can keep someone from killing again, is that justice? It doesn’t restore the stolen property. It doesn’t bring the dead back to life. It simply appeases our need to feel that something has been done even if nothing productive came out of the act itself. And the idea that we then commit violence for violence’s sake becomes terrifying and that paradox of how to make right that which is wrong lies at the core of the mature and thematically complex anti-Western, Unforgiven.
When someone is assaulted or violated in some physical manner, society’s focus tends to be on the aggressor of that violence rather than the victim? And while it’s important to ensure that these acts can’t occur again, why is that the epicenter of our attention? Why isn’t it the person that’s hurting? They are the ones who suffered the most, not the society that punishes the action causing the pain. And, while their names may be invoked in the quest for “justice,” too often their actual needs are swept under the rug. And throughout Unforgiven, men seek “justice” while the woman whose brutalization sets the film in motion never has her world returned to normal.
Before his late wife cured him of the alcohol and wickedness, as he would say, William Munny (Clint Eastwood) was a vicious and ill-tempered gunslinger feared throughout the West. But, he married, found a wife, and abandoned the gun. And though she’s been dead for two years from smallpox, Will and his two children have a hardscrabble life raising pigs on their small farm in Missouri. But a casual act of brutal violence in the small town of Big Whiskey, Wyoming puts Will back on the path of violence and destruction.
When a prostitute lets out an accidental laugh about a rough cowboy’s small penis, he cuts her face to shreds while his scared friend holds her down. And the other working girls in this brothel scrabble together enough money to put out a $1000 bounty for any man willing to kill the cowboys that maimed their colleague. Word gets down to Will in Missouri by way of a young man that fashions himself as the heir apparent to Will’s outlaw days that goes by the handle the Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett). And Will convinces himself that taking out two men that cut up a girl isn’t a return to his past wicked ways.
Will teams up with the Schofield Kid and his old partner, Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman), and heads off to Big Whiskey which puts him on a collision course with “Little” Bill Daggett (Night Moves‘ Gene Hackman), Big Whiskey’s Sheriff. When the prostitute was cut, “Little” Bill’s solution was for the cowboys to pay a number of ponies to the owner of the brothel. Little concern was given to the well-being of the prostitute herself. Bill is more concerned with maintaining order and business in his town than righting any actual wrongs (the owner of the brothel was paid because the prostitute was his property in the eye of all the men involved), and he’s intent on stopping any men that might come to his town and turn it into a shooting gallery to collect on that bounty.
Unforgiven is about competing notions of justice. The prostitutes think that the only way the men who hurt her friend (though only one of them actually did any cutting) is for those cowboys to pay with their lives. “Little” Bill thinks that a roughly equal (in his skewed, misogynistic eyes) trade of property to the owner of the business is justice. And the girl who was cut just wants her face back so she can go back to working because now she is damaged goods and no man would ever want to buy her services. And it’s only the cut prostitute’s needs that seem sane or just but blood is spilled in Big Whiskey’s dusty streets and her life remains the same.
And the film is carried on the sturdy shoulders of Gene Hackman. Unforgiven would not work if Gene Hackman were an ostentatiously corrupt law man or a weak-willed coward. He firmly believes that he is a great man, keeping the forces of darkness and men of low character out of his town. And, in some ways, he’s right. Will, Ned, and the Schofield Kid (as well as “English” Bob [This Sporting Life‘s Richard Harris], a pretentious gun-for-hire hauling around his own personal biographer) are assassins. We live in a nation of laws, and gunning men down in the streets without a trial spits in the face of law and order. And with his snake-like charm and sheer force of personality, it’s easy to forget that “Little” Bill is the film’s villain until the moments where he delights in bullying those that are scared of his power.
When “Little” Bill tells “English” Bob’s biographer (Saul Rubinek) that all of Bob’s claims of glory and bloodshed are exaggerations at best and outright fabrications at worst, there’s a spark in Gene Hackman’s eyes letting us know how much Bill enjoys degrading his former peer. But even at his most petty and mean-spirited, Bill thinks he’s doing the right thing. He doesn’t want men running around embellishing their experience because A) it’s a lie and B) it’s a slap in the face of how survival in that period wasn’t about being tough or fast. It often boiled down to luck. And although he becomes truly monstrous (perhaps too much so) in the film’s final act, watching Gene Hackman’s performance as “Little” Bill is one of the cinema’s great delights.
Clint Eastwood has never been, nor will he ever be one of our great actors. His appeal as an actor is about the piercing gaze of his icy blue eyes, and the way his presence can control an entire room, and for much of Unforgiven, you see a battered and weak Eastwood, and it’s almost embarrassing to watch as Eastwood struggles with more traditional dramatic material, but on some level, I suspect it’s an intentional choice. Will Munny is a man pretending to be reformed, and his charade isn’t very convincing. Munny may have given up his old life of booze and murder, but the man who committed those acts is still within him, struggling to break free. And the moments of the film where Eastwood captures his classic magic is when his dark side inevitably surfaces.
And while Eastwood will never be one of our great directors, there is little question that he is one of our great directors. Unforgiven is a visual marvel. Drawing equally on John Ford and Eastwood’s mentor, Sergio Leone, Eastwood utilizes the raw beauty of Western landscapes as a contrast to the violence and mire through which his characters wallow. There are several haunting shots set against the setting sun and placed far back from the characters and Eastwood’s use of silhouettes is masterful.
When the violence finally arrives in Unforgiven, it is shocking and thoroughly un-romantic. It isn’t John Wayne gunning down Liberty Valance. It’s not Gary Cooper eliminating the Miller gang on dusty streets. It’s ugly. It’s “Little” Bill kicking “English” Bob nearly to death in the streets as a warning to any other would be assassins. It’s the return of a side of a man long thought dead in a hail of bullets, blood, and hollow revenge. Each bullet, each punch, each cruelty is felt as its meant rather than cheap glory, and it is scary.
Unforgiven could have used a re-write for its occasionally ham-fisted and overly expository dialogue which grates on a number of unfortunate occasions (questioning repetition of other people’s lines happens quite often), but as a thematic statement on the empty nature of retributive justice, Unforgiven is a master class in storytelling, and “Little” Bill Daggett’s role is one of the great villains not only in Western history but the movies period. But, you still have this question when the credits come to a roll: who truly cares about what happened to the girl, and can we forgive ourselves if no one did?
Final Score: A