by TOM NIXON
In 1992, the Western and its heroes lay in ashes; old and weathered has-beens usurped by civilization, forgotten. Aptly, Unforgiven takes place amidst the winding down of the old school under crisp red sunsets, its heroes now struggling farmers and carpenters, or pompous self-parodies followed around by doting biographers. But Clint Eastwood knew that his beloved genre still had something to offer; understood our notions of propriety and civility to require deeper examination. He also knew that he, uniquely placed as a touchstone of the Western mythos, should be the one to attempt such an examination; a revival tempered by the wisdom, and the regret, of age and hindsight.
To say that Unforgiven deromanticizes the Old West seems a touch reductive. Horror and sadness don’t replace the exhilaration of western genre archetypes but can only accompany it; Clint may be sorry, but his love for the Western hasn’t dwindled. The melancholy of the piece lies in learning with age our powerlessness in the face of past deeds and everlasting impulses; wiser, but unforgiven and unchanged.
The film begins with a whore getting cut up by a couple of angry cowboys. The rest of the whores, furious about disciplinarian sheriff Little Bill’s (a fantastic Gene Hackman) leniency, put out their own $1000 reward for killing the assailants. Cut to William Munny (Clint Eastwood), ex-badass killer, now docile farmer wallowing around with his hogs in the muck; he was ‘cured of drink and wickedness’ by his late wife, or so he repeatedly (repeatedly) convinces himself. But the lure of past glories proves too much as news of the reward arrives, and off he sets with reluctant old friend Ned (Morgan Freeman) and the cocksure, half-blind ‘Schofield Kid,’ a mirror image of Will’s youth.
Will clings to the belief that his only motivations are money and justice, and Eastwood beautifully manipulates us, knowing that like the impressionable Schofield Kid we’ll be disappointed when Munny refuses to show Little Bill what he’s made of, fails to get his creaking body onto a horse, refuses to revive his past self. Clint knows, too, that when the conflict within Will grows and all restraint inevitably gives way in an ugly climax, we’ll be as exhilarated as we are chilled. But whilst the audience is implicated, Eastwood primarily points the finger at himself – by casting himself in the lead role he understands himself as embodying the bloodlust and cognitive dissonance he so regrets. He’s full of longing for redemption, but remains slave to a baser love for the cult of masculinity he serves as emblem; his belated conscience does nothing to rid him of his evils.
Clint’s personal investment can lead him to lay on the point too thickly – he doesn’t trust his audience, or more likely himself, enough. But he should, because when he’s in his element Eastwood makes of Unforgiven an undoubted masterpiece, the opening setting the sun over the burial of Will’s wife and civility both, then cutting to a thunderous rainstorm in the city, heart of darkness. It’s no coincidence that the most civilized character, naive and childlike biographer W.W. Beauchamp, sees glory and heroism even where there’s none to be found – nor is it accidental that every bit of gratuitous violence happens inside the city, every reluctant kill outside it. Eastwood deliciously inverts the divide between civilization and barbarity, and in doing so asks just how far from our roots we’ve truly strayed.
Guilt in the eyes and the words always belies the various notions of moral justification in Unforgiven, and relish too. The whores never convincingly justify their howling for blood, Ned is far too easily swayed by Will’s invitation to come along, and a half-dead Munny is haunted by the angel of death and his late wife’s face covered in worms. No punches are pulled in the way the two dominant characters forget all morals and revert to their animal roots; Munny at his most horrifying tells Little Bill that “deserve” has nothing to do with his murdering ways; that the violence in them both exists irrespective of morality. This rings true in light of Little Bill earlier beating criminals to a bloody pulp, equating justice and protection with cold sadism. When guilt breaks down the Schofield Kid and he finally rejects his heroes, it has come too late, he has already killed. He doesn’t want to be like Munny or Clint no more, but neither do they; it’s a burden which they’ll all have to carry forever – and, as we revel in the violence, we realize so will we. We hear repeatedly that the two cowboys “had it coming,” and Munny’s reply to this is perhaps the definitive statement in Unforgiven: “we all have it coming, kid.”
Unforgiven precedes films like Dogville and A History of Violence in the way it exposes civility as a form of self-denial which gives way to bloodlust with the slightest bit of manipulation, but it’s less like those films’ clinical dissections than a tragic lamentation for a time when we weren’t so aware of the ugliness within ourselves. Bleak and challenging, wearing its scars and hurts across its weathered mien whilst reminding us of how a dying genre’s archetypes so intoxicated us in the first place, Unforgiven is made great by a realization that joys made painful and ugly by hindsight are joys nonetheless, and that in making those joys harder-earned we can at least achieve a greater understanding of ourselves. Perhaps with last year’s Gran Torino, Clint has finally provided his earlier masterpiece with a nugget of hope, suggesting that some semblance of redemption and change can eventually occur, but right at the end of the road.