Monday, February 8, 2010
While I've enjoyed many Clint Eastwood films, the Unforgiven was the first one that made me think, "that's why Clint Eastwood got into the movies." While the Western has never completely gone away "The Unforgiven" reminded me why they don't. The old west provides a perfect backdrop for rough characters who get tough or die. That may sound like an odd thing to say in reference to this movie, but the Unforgiven is a thorough examination of these characters and this environment.
Technically, this film is unforgettable, showing the west as a wild and barren place not well suited for life, while interiors are as dark and brooding as any nightmare.
The acting is all astounding with nothing short of brilliant performances by any actor involved. Eastwood, Hackman, and Freeman are giving nothing but their best here.
Clint Eastwood directs and plays the lead role, an ex-killer named William Munny. Will has long since retired after finding a woman, who settled him down. She however, has passed on, leaving him to tend the ranch and take care of his two youg kids. It speaks volumes of his character that even after his wife died, he kept to the path he promised her. Munny is revealed to be such an ugly character that it's easy to forget this.
He also has a close bond with his ex-partner Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman) which has endured over many years. While Eastwood has played the anti-hero more than probably any actor out there, Will Munny is a step further than usual. This is not a man who killed out of revenge or self defense, but simply one who killed indiscriminately because he has drunk and angry or just for money. He wasn't an anti-hero but a pure villian in the past. It's no accident that the film starts with Munny settled down and out of the killing line of business. The problem is, he's much better at killing than he is at ranching. So, when "The Schofield Kid" (Jaimz Woolvett) a wet behind the ears kid, presenting himself as a cold blooded killer, shows up to recruit him for one last job, he can't really pass it up. The Kid's heard stories, but looking at Munny, he's skeptical as to their truth. He imagines that a killer has some telltale signs that give away his nature and in Will he only sees a beaten old rancher. The scenario the Kid presents is perfect. Munny is able to justify it as it appears to be a good cause. Apparently some drunk cowboy "cut up a whore." and there's a bounty on that cowboys head. Will decides he needs Ned and so pays him a visit to justify it to him as well. Ned is also settled down now, but agrees to accompany them to the town of Big Whiskey, where the offense was committed.
Big Whiskey, Wyoming is run by Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman). While Little Bill is not a kind character by any means, he does respect and enforce the law as fairly as he can. In some cases he's too lenient, as when he proposes the penalty for the cowboy (he's to give the saloon owner some horses to compensate for loss of the whore's services) and in others too severe (dealing with the would be assassin's.) As a result of his leniency, the group of whores decide to pool their money to offer the bounty on the cowboy's head. When Little Bill hears about the bounty offerred, he anticipates the run of criminals coming in to claim the bounty, so he outlaws guns in Big Whiskey. Little Bill is the perfect foil for Bill Munny. He is clearly on the side of law and order, a man of principles and fairness (perhaps skewed fairness) His only objective is to keep the peace in Big Whiskey. His lack of urgency in punishment for the disfiguring of the whore is also in keeping with the times he lives in. Viewing them as property, offerring horses as retribution would not be unreasonable. Little Bill despises assassins, but don't we all?
Richard Harris has a great role as English Bob, one of the first to show up to collect the bounty. As the name suggests Bob is loyal to the English crown, a fact which makes him unpopular, but given his reputation as a skilled killer, most let his lectures pass uninterrupted. He offers an interesting theory on the assasination attempt on President Garfield, claiming that you can't shoot royalty. Bob also travels with a biographer, Beauchamp (Saul Rubinek) who writes down Bob's every recollection as it it was gospel. English Bob's stay in Big Whiskey is a short one as Little Bill knows well who he is. He catches English Bob concealing a weapon and beats him severely as an example to every assassin who would ride in. He then jails Bob and Beauchamp, taking the time to shed new light on Bob's stories. He points out to Beauchamp that Bob is a coward more than a skilled gunman. Misreading the title of Beachamps book, he calls Bob the "Duck of Death" and when Beauchamp corrects him, he responds "Duck, I says. Beauchamp soon latches on to Little Bill for his seemingly more reliable information. It's an interesting examination on the nature of the myths around these men, Beauchamp only writing down what he's told by each source, each with their own bias, switching allegiance purely due to force of character.
Will, Ned and the Kid arrive in Big Whiskey, having passed through heavy rain leaving Will sick with fever. The prostitutes offer all three men "free ones" (sexual favors as an advance on payment) Ned and the Kid find this idea agreeable, but Will is both too sick and uninterested as he still thinks of himself as married, although his wife's been dead a long time. This turn of events leaves Will alone in the saloon when Little Bill shows up. Bill takes an instant dislike to Munny, and despite Will's fever, he beats him like Englis Bob and throws him out in the rain. This incident gives Ned and the Kid time to get away. They come back for Will and bring him to a location out of town where they and the prostitutes nurse him back to health. THis allows a significant moment between Will and Delilah (Anna Levine) the prostitute who was cut up. She offers Will a "free one." and when Will declines, she assumes that it's because of her face. Will corrects her saying that if he did want a free one it would be with her. This moment of tenderness reminds us how far away Will is from his past misdeeds, not to suggest that they won't reclaim him, but to show how much range one man can really have.
When Will has recovered, the killing is accomplished in short order. Rather than a glorious gunfight, we see the three assassins corner the man in a ravine. They're clearly out of practice and the first shot kills the man's horse pinning him down and breaking his leg. Although Ned is the best shot of them all, he loses his nerve after the horse, and we've learned that the Schofield Kid has a serious vision problem, so Will gets the gun. After several misses he finally hits him, but in the gut so dying will take a while. They have to listen to him moaning in pain and asking for water, to be sure he's dead. Will, still wrestling with his nature, tells the man's companions, who won't venture into the ravine for fear of being shot, to bring him the water he asks for.
Ned decides he's had enough at this point and heads towards home. They still have one man left to kill however, so Will and the Kid head for the cowboy's camp and wait in view of the outhouse for the second man to take his turn. The Kid is still out to prove his toughness, and he takes the opportunity to kill the man swinging open the door and shooting him right on the toilet. He's clearly shaken afterwards, and he admits to Will that he made up the five men he'd claimed to have killed all along, leading to this exchange:
The Schofield Kid: That was the first one.
Will Munny: First one what?
The Schofield Kid: First one I ever killed.
Will Munny: Yeah?
The Schofield Kid: You know how I said I shot five men? It weren't true. That Mexican that come at me with a knife, I just busted his leg with a shovel. I didn't kill him or nothing, neither.
Will Munny: Well, you sure killed the hell outta that fella today.
One of the prostitute meets them with the money and also informs them that little Bill caught Ned and killed him during interrogation. Will sends the kid off with the money and heads back into town. Will's transformation is shocking and instant. Watch it here:
When he sees Ned's body propped up in front of the saloon with a warning sign hung on it for assassin's it's clear that the showdown is inevitable. Will walks in and shoots the saloon owner for having Ned outside. He then shoots Little Bill and everyone who pulled out a gun to shoot him. Despite many attempts no one manages to hit Will. Beauchamp is mystified, and quizzes Will about the order in which he killed them attempting to come up with some logic to explain this impossible task.
W.W. Beauchamp: Who, uh, who'd you kill first?
Will Munny: Huh?
W.W. Beauchamp: When confronted by superior numbers, an experienced gunfighter will always fire on the best shot first.
Will Munny: Is that so?
W.W. Beauchamp: Yeah, Little Bill told me that. And you probably killed him first, didn't you?
Will Munny: I was lucky in the order, but I've always been lucky when it comes to killin' folks.
W.W. Beauchamp: And so, who was next? It was Clyde, right? You must have killed Clyde. Well, it could have been Deputy Andy. Wasn't it? Or, or...
[Will points the rifle in his face]
Will Munny: All I can tell you is who's gonna be last.
Will rides out of town yelling a warning to everyone. Some gunman hide in alleyways and shadows but none can get up the nerve to fire a shot. The movie ends with text referring to Will's mother in law:
"Some years later, Mrs. Ansonia Feathers made the arduous journey to Hodgeman County to visit the last resting place of her only daughter. William Munny had long since disappeared with the children... some said to San Francisco where it was rumored he prospered in dry goods. And there was nothing on the marker to explain to Mrs. Feathers why her only daughter had married a known thief and murderer, a man of notoriously vicious and intemperate disposition."
And we don't know either, but we do know that it isn't as simple as hero and villian. We suspect that Munny will always wrestle with the bad part of himself, whether he can achieve any sort of redemption is unclear. And what about Little Bill whose only crime was being to severe in his application of the law? Eastwood gives an answer earlier in the fil when Will says:
"deserve's got nothing to do with it."