In one scene, a man is plugged full of bullets in an outhouse. He spews blood while defecating, his arteries emptying along with his bowels. John Ford, and even Sam Peckinpah, would have let their characters make more graceful exits, at least letting them pull up their pants, but Eastwood makes no concessions to decorum. If the scene was choreographed, it was only to insure that it did not appear rehearsed. One does not watch the scene and express admiration for the "cool" or dramatic way in which the victim stumbles to the ground. In Unforgiven, being killed is an ugly, painful humiliation, almost as much for the killer as it is for the victim.
The plot of Unforgiven is a simple one: a prostitute’s face is slashed by a cowboy who takes offense at the woman’s having laughed at his "small pecker." When the sheriff (Gene Hackman) refuses to punish the crime in a manner that the women consider appropriate (he merely demands that the cowboy repay the saloon owner for the loss of income that will result from the slashed hooker’s diminished appeal to customers), they band together to offer a reward to anyone who will administer a more violent and permanent punishment.
Soon, a young arrogant figure calling himself the "Schofield Kid" (Jaimz Woolvetz) rides onto the Kansas farm of William Munny (Eastwood), a once sadistic killer now reformed through the love of a wife whose grave Munny is seen digging during the opening credits. "I’m not like that no more," Munny tells the Kid, but with two small children and a failing farm to support, Munny eventually accepts the Kid’s offer to join him in pursuit of the "whore’s gold," but only after enticing his former partner, Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman), to share the journey into Big Whiskey, Wyoming, and, of course, sharing the reward.
As they make their way to the town where Sheriff Little Bill Daggett rules in an especially brutal manner when not building a house, on the porch of which he dreams of "drinking my coffee and watching the sunset," Munny and Logan remember their wild and unconscionably violent days which they now regret and believe are safely behind them. Munny is not convinced, however, and continually expresses shame and horror at his past cruelties. He is a haunted man, not at all eager to feed the Kid’s hunger for details about the art of killing.
W.W. Beuchchamp (Saul Rubinek), a writer, "of books," as he repeatedly tells those who ask, is as eager as the Kid to hear of the exploits of such merchants of death as Munny, as well as English Bob (Richard Harris), a cold-blooded killer whose romanticized biography Beuchchamp is writing. The elegant Bob arrives in Big Whiskey with Beuchchamp in tow, eager to collect the bounty, but instead of living up to the title that Beuchchamp has given him, "The Duke of Death," Bob gets a severe dressing down from Daggett who exposes the fraud behind English Bob’s legend, in addition to beating the fanciful gunfighter senseless. As Bob lies defeated in Daggett’s jail cell, the cruel yet affable sheriff debunks the myths of the West’s quick-draw and short-tempered killers, including one of Bob’s victims, a man called "two-gun," not, as Beuchchamp believes, because he carried two pistols, but because he had an especially large penis which he once placed in the wrong woman’s holster, leading to his demise at the hands of the jealous Englishman.
With Unforgiven, Clint Eastwood casts a cold objective eye on the realities of the West after the gunsmoke from decades worth of Hollywood westerns has cleared. There are no heroes in Eastwood’s vision, only men and women whose flawed spirits take their toll on the flesh, their own and others. There’s good and bad evident in the best and the worst of the people in Big Whiskey, but it’s the ugly - the ugliness of vanity, revenge, money and death - that Unforgiven emphasizes.
The performances are impeccable. As Munny, Eastwood, often dismissed as a "star" who gets by on his charismatic presence in lieu of acting, offers the finest performance of his long career. Twenty-eight years after A Fistful of Dollars launched him on the road to superstardom, Eastwood’s William Munny could be the laconic and mercenary Man With No Name, now aged and mellow, and mournfully looking back, finally feeling the pain his recklessness had caused others. Gene Hackman’s Oscar winning Little Bill is a man who exploits his sheriff’s badge to maintain an egotistical control over the town, rather than to keep the peace. Morgan Freeman provides the compassionate balance that keeps Munny from drowning in his self-pitying nightmares, and, as the Schoefield Kid, Jaimz Woolveet embodies the youthfully ignorant bravado that Munny and Logan dropped before the Kid was born.
There is also Richard Harris whose marvelous portrait of English Bob compensates for the shameless mugging he has engaged in through a string of unworthy, career killing projects in the two decades preceding this deserved comeback. The rest of the cast, including Frances Fisher as Strawberry Alice, the hooker who proposes that the women seek revenge, and Anna Thompson, the "cut whore," are also excellent.
And then there’s long, lean Anthony James as Skinny, the saloon keeper. Twenty five years earlier, James made his film debut as Ralph, the man behind the counter of the diner where Warren Oates liked to sip Coke and eat pie in another Oscar winner for best picture, In the Heat of the Night. James is one of the great unheralded character actors of our time, and his presence is always welcome.
The cinematography by Jack Green, editing by Oscar winner Joel Cox, sets by Harry Bumstead, and music score by Lennie Niehous (centered on "Claudia’s Theme" written by Eastwood) are all first-rate. The personnel behind the scenes are all regulars in Eastwood’s Malpaso company, and it is interesting to note that Eastwood is the only major director--in fact, the only director currently working--to shun the possessive credit ("A film by...") that was once reserved for the absolute giants of the craft--Hitchcock, Ford, Hawks--but is now claimed by every traffic cop who steps behind a camera. Eastwood recognizes the art of filmmaking as a collaborative effort, one which a director leads but surely cannot do alone. Perhaps Eastwood’s generosity is what makes his team continually strive to deliver their absolute best. With Unforgiven, they have.
Brian W. Fairbanks
© 1999 Brian W. Fairbanks