Unforgiven (1992)

Unforgiven is my idea of a good western. More of a rumination on the evil nature of man than the glorious heroics of a noble cowboy, Unforgiven understands the nature of the world in which the western takes place probably better than any other western I’ve seen. It’s a harsh and cruel place, a breeding grounds for vice and violence. Yet for all the film does fantastically, it failed to ever fully grip me on the most basic level.

William Munny (Clint Eastwood) is settled quietly as a pig farmer, the old days of his rough and tumble times are long behind him, an old memory from the past. But that changes when the pigs start dying off and he catches news of a bounty which could help him raise his two children. Joined by his old friend Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman), he makes for the bount:, two men who roughed up a whore, disfiguring her face. However, lying in wait is Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman), the town sheriff, who is bent on making sure no one collects the bounty so that the whores are kept in line.

And therein lies my key problem with the film. The actual conflict of the plot just isn’t gripping. In fact, on some level it seems rather petty on the parts of all the players involved. Why does Daggett care about keeping these whores in line? What does he care about two punks? And the whores seem so blind in their hatred they fail to see the attempts at reconciliation by one of the men. I never felt any kind of compelling external conflict in this film.

However, the internal conflict going on in the William Munny characters is fantastic. He’s struggling with this harsh past that his wife cured him of, but now that he’s out in the real world he’s finding it hard to remain good. His rejection of booze and women are in honor to his wife and he almost goes out of his way to make sure he’s not killing anybody.

However, going back to the narrative again, it never feels like the film does a fantastic job of slowly easing him into the temptations that he could fall back into. He should constantly be teased by it, enticed by it at every turn. The film does do a good job at tempting him with booze, and as a result of neglecting it he gets a cold, which in turn means that when he gets a chance to use violence to save his own skin, he can’t because he’s too sick.

But the sentiment behind his character is fantastic. In a lot of ways, this older Clint Eastwood is a response to all the roles he played beforehand as a rough or crazy killer. I almost wonder if Eastwood regrets playing those violent roles and becoming a hero to kids while doing horrible things. In any case, his portrayal is one of great sorrow, honesty and openness.

People often talk about the great moment of the film where Eastwood talks to a kid after his first killing: “It’s a hell of a thing, killing a man. Take away all he’s got and all he’s ever going to have.” But the moment after that is even better as the kid replies: “Yeah, well, I guess they had it coming.” To which Eastwood replies, “We all got it coming, kid.” It’s that kind of bluntness and sincerity that sells the character.

As a result of all this, the film is a deconstruction of the western hero. It is not a glamorous life of John Wayne but the average life of a real person. The first time we see Eastwood he’s in the mud, catching pigs. A humble begging, to be sure. However, as the film goes on it seems to go out of its way to make this point over and over again. There’s an entire character who only exists only so that the audience can be informed that his heroic status is all a bunch of tall tales. Also, a recurring gag thought the film is that Eastwood never seems to be able to get on his horse on the first try. It’s funny the first time, but wears thin as the film progresses.

What doesn’t wear thin are the fantastic images throughout the film. More westerns should be shot like this with the great, colorful sunsets silhouetting the outlines of buildings and men. It’s almost romantic with the picturesque landscapes and soft colors, but there are also a lot of these dark, under-lit shots that give the film a seedier film, more like it’s a horror picture than a western. And both visual tones work well, even if only one of them actually fits the mood of the picture.

I should love this film. It breaks down the genre with criticisms I agree with and then proceeds to reconstruct the film into a tragic rumination on the follies of youth. However, as much as those ideas work for me on a cerebral level, given the context of what is a rather poor story, the film failed to engage me. I appreciate that Unforgiven exists, I like the ideas it touts, but I find the execution of those ideas poor.

© 2010 James Blake Ewing