Sunday, December 2, 2012

Film # 91: Unforgiven (1992)

Director: Clint Eastwood

Initial Release Country: United States

Times Previously Seen: around five or six

Rapid-Fire Summary

In the small town of Big Whiskey, Montana, in 1881, a cowhand becomes enraged at a prostitute named Delilah over a minor insult and slashes her face. Despite calls from Delilah’s fellow prostitutes that the cowhand and his companion be hanged, the sheriff, “Little Bill” (Gene Hackman) merely demands that the two boys pay the proprietor of the saloon/cathouse in the form of horses. The furious prostitutes then secretly pool their money and start spreading word of a bounty for anyone who kills the two cowboys.

To the south, in Kansas, a brash young man calling himself “The Schofield Kid” finds the middle-aged farmer William Munny and asks him to partner up to kill the cowboys for the bounty. The Kid has heard from that Munny was once a fearless and vicious killer who would make a perfect partner for such a dark deed. Munny, now a widower who has forsworn his previously murderous life and with two young children to support, at first refuses The Kid. With his farm failing, though, he changes his mind. He convinces one of his old partners, Ned (Morgan Freeman), to join him on this final killing in order to have a new start for his children.

Will Munny, a brutal killer in the past, now struggles on his farm with his two your children.

Back in Big Whiskey, Little Bill has now heard of the bounty put out and brutally beats and casts out the first bounty hunter who drifts into town to inquire after it – the noted gunman “English” Bob (Richard Harris). When the Kid, Will, and Ned come into town some days after, Will is himself beaten by Little Bill, while Ned and The Kid escape. The three rally themselves and set out after the first of the two cowboys, undeterred by Little Bill’s edict against assassins. When they find the cowboy, however, Ned is unable to bring himself to kill him. Will instead takes Ned’s rifle and shoots the cowboy dead. Ned, realizing that he no longer has what it takes to kill a man, parts ways with Will and The Kid, with Will promising to bring Ned his share of the bounty after the job is finished.

Will and The Kid then find the second cowboy, who actually cut up Delilah, holed up at the ranch he works on. The Kid kills the cowboy and the two make a narrow escape. When Will and The Kid return to just outside of Big Whiskey to collect the bounty, however, they discover that Ned has been captured, tortured, and killed. Suddenly overcome by a dark cloud of vengeance, Will plies himself with alcohol and rides into town alone. Calmly walking into the saloon where Ned’s corpse is prominently displayed outside, Will coldly kills six men, including the saloon owner, four deputies, and Little Bill himself. Though plenty of the townspeople are still alive to stop Will from leaving, they are all too terrified of the killer to even make the attempt.

Will, in Skinny's saloon as he slays all those he feels are responsible for Ned's death. During these moments, all traces of the quiet, tortured farmer have been burned away.

We are told in the end that Will returned to his farm and used his bounty money to move himself and his children away, possible to California where he “prospered in dry goods.”

My Take on the Film (Done after this most recent viewing):

Unforgiven is, in my mind, the greatest Western film. There are others that are more exciting and entertaining, but this one has by far the most depth and arguably the greatest acting.

Clint Eastwood’s masterpiece probably couldn’t have been made much earlier than it was. Being a deconstruction of the mythical West and Western stories, it required all of the popular lore that preceded it, both in literature and film. Eastwood set out tell a story that took a dark and realistic look into the souls of truly dangerous men in the old West, and he did it with expert precision.

At the heart of the film are all of the popular notions of the “Wild West” gunslinger. The mythology around that time and place has been the inspiration for countless tales of adventure for well over a century. The archetypal “deadly guman” has long been one of the most attractive characters in U.S. narrative. Unforgiven gives voice to this attraction through the character Beauchamp, a bumbling fiction writer who at first is following around English Bob as his biographer. His stories of Bob cast him as a noble warrior whose skills with a pistol make him a modern-day knight. Once Bob is thrashed and imprisoned by Little Bill, however, the myth starts to fall apart.

English Bob, left, and his biographer, Beauchamp. It is initially through these two characters that the myths of honorable gunfighters are taken apart.

It is during the scenes between Little Bill and Beauchamp, with English Bob watching from his cell, that we start to get at the reality of killers. With his first-hand knowledge of Bob, Little Bill tears apart Beauchamp’s notions of his idol. We soon see that Bob, though a truly dangerous gunman, is actually a vicious murderer unworthy of any admiration.

But the deconstruction of English Bob is only a prelude. It is with the tale of Will Munny that the truly disturbing truths about gunfighters emerge. With incredible pacing, Munny’s regression from penitent farmer back to unrepentant killer is as captivating as it is terrifying. For most of the film, Munny’s murderous past is merely hinted at, through stories told by other characters such as The Schofield Kid and even Will’s riding partner, Ned. As each bloody story is revealed, Munny tries to assure Ned and himself that he, “ain’t like that no more.” Watching him cling to the new self into which his dead wife molded him is like watching a time bomb trying to diffuse itself.

During his arrival at Bog Whiskey, Munny is still tortured and ill. It's almost as if his modern, peaceful self is slowly coming apart under the burden of trying to keep his homicidal nature at bay.

Any doubt about Munny is removed about halfway through the film, upon the death of the first cowboy. When Ned is unable to pull the trigger, Munny reverts to form. Without blinking, he takes the rifle from Ned’s uncertain hands, takes aim, and kills the young man. It is now clear that, while Ned truly has left his homicidal past behind him, Munny still possesses a true murderer's instinct. As if the contrast between Ned and Munny isn’t enough, is becomes all the more clear when Munny allow The Kid, eager for a kill, to execute the second cowboy later. After the deed is done, The Kid shakily admits that, contrary to his prior boasting, it was his first kill. The Kid is all too aware of the difference between himself and Munny, stating, “I ain’t like you Will.” Will’s response is right at the heart of the film – “It’s a hell of a thing, killin’ a man. You take away everything he’s got and everything he’s ever gonna have.” The Kid then swears off guns and killing for the rest of his life.

It is then, in the final ten minutes of the movie, that we see the true horror of William Munny. After he is told of Ned’s death, a terrifying transformation takes place. For most of the story, Will has been the picture of anguished restraint. He has refused to take a drop of alcohol and has only killed the two cowboys condemned by the bounty. However, when he learns that his friend has been tortured, killed, and put on display, his previous decade of temperance thoroughly vanishes. A cold fire alights in his eyes, his teeth clench, and he grabs a whiskey bottle and methodically starts to drink. By the time he enters the saloon at nightfall, he is Vengeance personified. In front of the group of puzzled and uncertain deputies and other town residents, he brutally shoots the saloon owner, Skinny. Even then, the deputies are clearly too frightened to try and bring down Munny. Even when they do gather their wits and try to square off against him, Munny is too calm under fire to be brought down. By doing little more than keeping his composure, he proceeds to shoot the five men remaining with weapons in their hands. The writer Beauchamp, who has been cowering in a corner and witnesses everything, then tries to question Munny on his “strategy.” Munny debunks any notion of skill or strategy by simple saying, “I was lucky…I’ve always been lucky when it comes to killin’ folks.” With this line, there is nothing left to be lauded in Munny’s actions, not even any kind of “skill.” Like English Bob, he is a mass murderer, though an uncommonly effective one.

Munny's execution of Little Bill. It may be one of the coldest, most haunting killings in all of film. 

Following the rapid departure of Beauchamp, Munny then steps up to Little Bill, who has been wounded but is not dead. Little Bill looks up at Will Munny, and instead of begging or pleading, simply says, “I don’t deserve to die like this.” Munny stares him in the face and delivers perhaps the most haunting line of the film when he proclaims, “Deserve’s got nothin’ to do with it.” At this moment, Munny is no longer even a spirit of vengeance. He is death itself. Unfeeling. Unthinking. Uncaring of right or wrong.

Those final lines, and others like them in the film, are what set Unforgiven apart. The only other Western I know of that even came close to taking such a hard look at the makeup of the Western gunfighter was The Searchers, with John Wayne. However, The Searchers still had a solid dose of romantic hokum blended into it, and it’s not nearly as even in execution as Unforgiven. Clint Eastwood directed this movie as well as anything he’s ever done, encompassing all of the things that make Western films great, while adding unprecedented philosophical depth.

The story and characters are undoubtedly what make the movie great, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least briefly mention its other merits. The cinematography is incredible, with all of the gorgeous wide-angle shots that you could hope for in a sweeping Western. Even more is the acting. Clint Eastwood does a fine enough job, and it helped that the character Will Munny didn’t call for any spectacular range of emotions (not Eastwood’s forte). The standout performances are Morgan Freeman and Gene Hackman, the latter of whom justifiably raked in a ton of awards for his turn as Little Bill. But even the smaller roles are all played perfectly, from Richard Harris as English Bob right down to the lowly prostitutes and townspeople.

Little Bill, in front of the townspeople of Big Whiskey. Just as important to the tone of the movie, the smaller roles all convey very realistic reactions to violence and death - rage, frustration, and fear.

When I think about Unforgiven as a whole, one thing I often come back to is the notion of freedom. For fans of Western tales, it is often the sense of freedom that is most appealing. The wide-open spaces of the old West have always been thought of as places where a person is free from the restrictions and expectations of “civilized” society. We often assume that this is essentially a positive thing, as it allows a person to be whoever they want to be or discover who they really are. This is a beautiful idea, if you assume that the person you really are is one to be loved and admired. But what if who you really are is someone as terrifying as William Munny? What if, in spite of your every effort to escape it in the quiet, isolated, wind-swept plains of Kansas, you are something that frightens yourself to your very soul? I don’t know if this is one of the intended themes of the film, but it is one that stays with me.

Additional Note: I came across the news that there is currently under production a remake of Unforgiven, set in feudal Japan and starring Ken Watanabe as the "Will Munny" character. Normally, I would be disgusted at the thought of a remake of Unforgiven; however, I can see the potential for a samurai setting to be very successful. I hope they can pull it off.

That’s a wrap. 91 shows down, 14 to go.

Coming Soon: Leolo (1992)

Don’t know anything about this one, but I’m guessing it doesn’t involve Clint Eastwood, ruminations on murder, or and Englishman getting his ass whipped. You never know, though…

Please be sure to pick up all empties on the way out.