By Tom Nixon
By 1992, the Western and its aged, weathered heroes lay in ashes, forgotten by a civilisation eager to disassociate itself from the violence in its past. Aptly, Unforgiven takes place amidst the winding down of the old school under crisp red sunsets, its cowboys now struggling farmers and carpenters, or pompous self-parodies harassed by doting biographers. Clint Eastwood knew that his beloved genre still had something to contribute, however, to a discussion of modern notions of propriety and civility. He also knew that he, uniquely placed as a legendary icon of the Western mythos, should be the one to attempt such an examination; a revival tempered by the wisdom — the regret — of age and hindsight.
To say that Unforgiven simply de-romanticises the Old West is reductive, just as it was when Robert Altman released McCabe & Mrs. Miller — perhaps the greatest of all revisionist westerns — in 1971. We may or may not live in more sensitive and introspective times, but Eastwood understands that the exhilaration of Western genre archetypes remains universal; his shame can only accompany it, apologise for it. It’s easy to tell from any of the film’s gracefully orchestrated set-pieces that the director’s own love for the Western certainly hasn’t dwindled, and he knows that he’s powerless to conquer it, which is why Unforgiven continues to be affecting despite a certain heavy-handedness and a serious risk of hypocrisy. Eastwood’s desire to apologise for his complicity in the sins of his genre is as sincere as his passion for it. He confesses despite the knowledge that he will remain unchanged and unforgiven, and therein lies the piece’s sense of tragedy.
The film begins with a whore named Delilah Fitzgerald (Anna Thomson) getting cut up by a couple of raucous cowboys in the town of Big Whiskey, Wyoming. The rest of the whores, led by Frances Fisher’s Strawberry Alice, are furious about their sheriff Little Bill’s (a fantastic Gene Hackman) uncharacteristic leniency, offering their own $1000 reward for killing the assailants. Cut to William Munny (Clint Eastwood), ex-badass killer, now docile father of two 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. It doesn’t take much to lure him back into the fold when news of the reward arrives, however, and off he sets with reluctant old friend Ned (Morgan Freeman) and the cocksure, half-blind Schofield Kid — an apparent mirror image of Will’s youth.
Will clings to the belief that his only motivations are money for his family and justice for the female victims, and Eastwood manipulates us into craving the dissolution of this transparent facade. He knows 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 drink the memories of his wife away and re-emerge as the Clint Eastwood we all know and love. Eastwood 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 unlike most films which implicate their audience, Unforgiven never smugly sermonises, because Eastwood is always primarily pointing the finger at himself; the decision to cast himself in the lead role confirms his understanding that he embodies the bloodlust and cognitive dissonance he so regrets. He’s full of longing for redemption, but remains a slave to his baser impulses and an emblem for the Old West’s cult of masculinity; his belated conscience does nothing to rid him of his evils.
Eastwood’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 he makes of Unforgiven a lyrical triumph. The opening sees the sun idyllically setting over the grave of Will’s late wife, before a deliciously jarring cut to a thunderous rainstorm in town — urban heart of darkness. It’s no coincidence that the most “civilised” character — naive and buffoonish biographer W.W. Beauchamp — sees glory and heroism even where there’s clearly none to be found, nor is it accidental that every example of gratuitous violence happens inside the city, while outside there are only reluctant kills. Eastwood quietly inverts the traditional divide between civilisation and barbarity, asking just how far from our roots we’ve truly strayed.
Guilt in the eyes and the words always belies the various notions of moral validation in Unforgiven, and relish too. The women 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 his late wife’s face covered in worms. No punches are pulled in the way the two dominant characters revert to their animal roots; Munny at his most disturbing rasps to Little Bill that “deserve” has nothing to do with his murdering ways, while Little Bill was earlier shown beating criminals to a bloody pulp, equating justice and protection with cold sadism. The ferocity with which Eastwood and Hackman play their characters’ descent into violence leaves no doubt that these are pre-moral phantoms, risen up from the shadows of the civilised world to announce it was just another jungle all along. When guilt and fear crumble the Schofield Kid’s braggadocio and he finally rejects his heroes, it has come too late; he has already killed. He doesn’t wanna be like Munny or Eastwood no more, but neither do they; it’s a burden which they’ll all have to carry forever, and — as we revel in the cathartic release of all that coiled violence — we realise: so will we. We hear repeatedly that the two cowboys “had it coming,” and Munny’s reply is perhaps the definitive statement of 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 manipulation, but it’s less like those films’ clinical dissections than an elegy for a time when we weren’t so aware of the ugliness within ourselves. Bleak and provocative, wearing its scars and hurts across its weathered mien while reminding us of how a dying genre’s archetypes so intoxicated us in the first place, Unforgiven demonstrates that by making our illicit cinematic joys harder-earned, we can at least become more honest with ourselves. Perhaps with 2008’s Gran Torino, a sly and dignified revision of his Dirty Harry icon, Eastwood finally provided us with a nugget of hope, suggesting that these cycles of violence can be broken and some kind of redemption can occur, but only at the end of the road.
Tom Nixon is the Senior Film Critic for the magazine.