Overview: Considered by many to be Western’s seminal masterpiece, Unforgiven follows retired outlaw Will Munny in his pursuit to collect a vengeful bounty; Warner Brothers; Rated R; 131 Minutes
Will Munny: It might seem a bit trite to say that Clint Eastwood’s most brilliant move as the director of this film is the casting of himself as the main character. Who else could carry and conceal Will Munny’s subdued hateful mean-ness through an entire two-hour run-time, saving its explosive revelation for the climactic showdown, and yet still have it be the most evident force in every scene prior? Interpretations of the character are varied: Some have suggested this movie is the closing chapter of The Man with No Name series, catching the iconic figure in his twilight years. Others have pondered whether Will Munny might be an aged William Bonnie, an aged Billie the Kid. But this much is a certainty: Will Munny is a singular and unique force in the American Western. And Clint Eastwood’s occupation of this role is a necessity. Unforgiven doesn’t work without him onscreen.
Violence: Violence infects the bloodstream of this movie, running quietly beneath the serene shots of dry, rocky mountainside, pulsing under the weighted dialogue, occasionally erupting like a seizure on the screen. Gene Hackman is ruthless and unhinged as Sheriff Wild Bill and his complete and strategic street beating of English Bob (Richard Harris) is a hurricane of savagery.
Best Scene: When Will Munny finds out about the murder of his best friend Ned (Morgan Freeman), he reaches for the whiskey. The grab occurs below frame. We see the swipe but not the exchange, we hear the whiskey swish against the glass, and then Munny brings the bottle to his lips. It’s as chilling and instantaneous a heel-turn as any film has ever presented. The whiskey that Munny has been refusing the entire movie, that’s all part of the same package deal. It includes the thieving and murdering, the viciousness, and the intemperate disposition. Here, staring over a windswept field near a solitary tree, in the waist-high grass against a backdrop of faint clouds scraping an open sky, Munny realizes what we all now realize: What nature designs cannot be reversed.
Hidden in Language: Unforgiven. This title says it all. Use that title as a translation tool. Apply it to the Scohfield Kid’s declaration “I won’t kill nobody no more. I ain’t like you, Will…,” and it becomes clear that the Kid means to say he never had it in him. When Wild Bill wriggles under Will Munny’s boot and faces the barrel of his shotgun, he pleads “I was building a house.” But what he really means is that he was uselessly attempting to construct a new life, a fresh start amputated of his wicked reputation. And when Will Munny responds with “Deserve’s got nothin’ to do with it” (my personal favorite movie line), what he means to point out is the futility of any notion that we control or even influence our destiny. He’s highlighting the uselessness of trying to be better people or pretending we are anyone other than who we are. Karma be damned, we are biological robots running programmed operating systems. So earlier in the film, when Munny warns the Kid, “We all got it coming” …Well, translation unnecessary. He means just that.
Grade: A +