Directed by Clint Eastwood
In Unforgiven, Clint Eastwood plays an old cowboy, Will, trying to forget his old ways, and yet he falls right back into them. Will lives with his two children in the middle of nowhere. It’s a quiet life, and we learn that he hasn’t fired a gun in 11 years. Before he aged out of the ‘game,’ Will was ruthless. There are myths floating around about him. He’s a thief and a murderer who, he admits, has killed men, women, children and anything that ever crawled. But the character we observe in this film is nothing like the character we’re told he once was. Despite its eventual violence, Unforgiven is a very quiet, tame film. It’s not until about the final 20 minutes that we get a single shootout.
The Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett), a young cowboy, tries to get Will to join him on a bounty to kill two men accused of cutting up a woman’s face. He comes to Will because he needs a partner, and he’s heard all the stories of Will’s past triumphs and brutality. The Kid, we will learn, has poor eyesight and thus can’t identify the target from far away. Will first rejects his offer, but then something convinces him to go. Maybe it’s because cutting up a woman’s face is heinous, and he feels extra protective of a woman after his own wife’s death, two years earlier. Or maybe Will was always looking to get back out there, but he just never had a reason to.
On his way to join the Kid, Will recruits his old partner, Ned (Morgan Freeman). They eventually make it to the town of Big Whiskey, where the whorehouse (and the female victim) is located. When the girls put up the $1,000 bounty, the town, led by Sheriff Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman) tries to get rid of any and all potential bounty hunters. They form an antagonistic force that extends from not just the two attackers but also all of the sheriff’s men.
One man, English Bob (Richard Harris), arrives in town looking for the reward alongside his biographer, W.W. Beauchamp (Saul Rubinek). As he makes his way to Big Whiskey on the train, we get an example of just how confident and how skilled of a shooter he is. English Bob is a formidable force, but when he gets to town, he is forcibly disarmed (the town has an ordinance that states no man must carry a gun in city limits), and beaten by Little Bill. In prison, Little Bill toys with English Bob, offering him the chance to hold a gun and duel with him. Bob considers it but backs down, and Bill shows him that the gun was loaded, meaning he would have gotten a fair chance. Bill then kicks Bob out of town, and the girls lament their fate, knowing no one will try to pick up the bounty now.
But then Will, Ned and the Kid arrive. Will is ill, and Little Bill kicks the crap out of him, making an example of him like he did English Bob. Ned and the Kid get away by jumping through out the window of the whorehouse on the second floor of the same saloon where Will gets beaten up.
Back at a ranch, Will recovers though he thinks he’s dying. He meditates on death and the power of taking someone’s life. He even imagines that he saw his deceased wife, Claudia, and the image of her rotting in the ground troubled him. Once he’s healthy, the three men kill the first of the two bounty targets. The Kid keeps pestering Will with “did you get him?” while Will demonstrates some reluctance to kill the man. Ned, however, is even more reluctant. He fires on shot, knocking the man off his horse, and then he is unable to fire the gun again, forcing Will to step in.
Ned decides to leave the two men behind, unwilling to go on after remembering what it felt like to kill a man.
Later, the Kid and Will find the ranch where the other target, the man who cut the girl’s face, is hiding. The Kid is eager to kill the man, and he ultimately does, though he hesitates. When the job is done, neither man celebrates. Clint Eastwood keeps doing his Clint Eastwood thing and just stares and says heavy one liners. One more death doesn’t affect, him, but he takes no glory in killing. The Kid is shaken, though. He tells Will that he lied about having killed five men (which Will already knows), and he says he won’t ever kill again.
Soon Will learns that Little Bill found and killed Ned. Pissed off, Will heads into Big Whiskey where the only shootout of the movie occurs, back in the saloon. He kills a series of men, including Little Bill. As he enters the saloon, and then again as he leaves, Will elaborates on the reputation that has proceeded him. He boasts about killing many, many people, all kinds of people, but he does so in a way that feels like he’s trying to protect himself just by intimidating people into not fighting back. It doesn’t feel so much like he is admitting to anything, just using his reputation to his advantage. It works, because as he leaves the saloon, no one shoots him despite an apparently clear shot.
This film does a good job of withholding what the audience wants until the end. When we see Clint Eastwood, we expect him to obliterate people, though reluctantly, of course. We know he will be dynamic with a gun in his hand, but the story then shows how rough around the edges he is. He has trouble climbing onto and off his horse, and he has trouble firing his gun the first few times. We even have to see him get knocked down with ease by Little Bill. The script is like a slingshot, pulling Will further and further back until the audience salivates for the old Clint Eastwood to return at full force, which he does.
I also enjoyed the way this film showed the impact killing a man has on a person. So many westerns feel peppered with gun battles and men getting wiped out left and right, with little consequence. The old west does feel wild. In movies it seems as though there are no downsides to walking into a town and shooting as many people as you want. Sure someone might come after you, but you can just shoot them. Westerns, like modern day superhero movies, desensitize you to a certain type of violence. This movie shows us why you might not want to ride around shooting everyone you see. Violence has consequences, not just in terms of the people who will come after you, but also in terms of what it does to your soul.
When the Kid tries to justify killing a man, as he did, he reminds himself that “he had it coming,” to which Will replies, “we’ve all got it coming.” Will is a man shell-shocked by the knowledge of what he’s done and the questions of what’s coming. He doesn’t know where he’s headed or what’s headed for him, but he knows it won’t be good.
Still, Will descends on Big Whiskey in the final act like he’s the angel of death (which he claims to have seen in his fever dream). He may not want to be so violent, but he doesn’t think he has much of a choice. Maybe Will is just predisposed to insane violence, once he realized how good he was with a gun. So his answer, then, was to pull himself out of the game, retreating to a homestead and starting a family. The only way out is to close the door behind you. Will doesn’t drink like the rest of the men, and he doesn’t want sex (from the prostitutes) like the rest of the men. He tries to quit everything cold turkey, but there’s part of him that is willing to grab his gun and come back, possibly because he knows it’s the only thing he’s good at.
So by the end of the film, I don’t think Will feels the need to run away anymore. He accepts this violent streak to be a part of him, and he serves it like a man watering his crops. He’s a haunted figure, his wife gone and now his friend gone as well, but he’s Clint Eastwood, so it’s kind of okay.
I really think that his character has almost nothing to live for anymore, even though he has his two kids. He’s on the verge of nothingness, and he’s even seen death and come back to talk about it. But at the same time, I do think that because he’s Clint Eastwood, the audience is left with a sense of, ‘well everything’s okay.’ But I don’t see things ending well for Will.
The title of the film suggests that no one will ever forget what Will has allegedly done in the past, and neither will he himself. If there is a higher power, which in the contexts of the film there is because it’s the old west when everyone believed in God, then he hasn’t forgiven Will, and Will doesn’t expect to be forgiven. The main plot of the story, about defending a young woman who suffered senseless violence, is partially about making up for Will’s past actions or maybe it’s just a form of penance. And yet, I think Will knows that nothing he does can make up for what’s already done. But again, we don’t know for sure that he has done everything people think he’s done. Maybe he killed one or two people, and through word of mouth the story became that he killed a dozen people. The man we see in this story is not the same one we hear stories about from the supporting characters. Either they’re embellished, or Will really was that man and knew the only way to stop being that man was to physically remove himself from the situation, retreating to a small farm in the middle of nowhere. But he’s like a small flame that just needs a little wind to start a wildfire.