movie review: Unforgiven

Andy and I watched the movie Unforgiven yesterday. I remember it being super popular when it came out. One time when I was at the video rental store returning a movie, some guy approached me to ask if it was Unforgiven, because you just couldn’t get ahold of it for a long time after it was released on video (yes, children, this took place long long ago before Blockbuster had that “guaranteed in stock” thing). However, I really didn’t know anything about the movie and it probably never would have occurred to me to watch it if Andy hadn’t suggested it. I’m glad I did though.

I thought it was a good movie. It takes the traditional Western format and archetypes and turns them inside out in every possible way. In a sharp contrast to exciting shootouts and action scenes, it has a slow quietness and kind of an empty feel about it. The visual imagery and symbolism is very powerful and evocative, complementing the movie’s story and message. And most importantly, instead of clearly delineated good vs. evil embodied in the characters, every character in the movie is flawed, differing only in whether or not they realize that they are so.
On the other hand, the movie is rather heavy-handed in its debunking of the western mystique. At one point it almost devolves from a dramatic narrative story into a lecture, as one of the characters, a biographer of western anti-heroes, is, well, lectured by another as to the true dispicableness of one of these legends. As a result, while I liked the movie and appreciated what it was trying to do, I was left a little bit cold.
At the end, I was left wondering what the title means–who was unforgiven by whom? I don’t know what the intention was, but the title as well as the movie as a whole could be considered an illustration of what the world would be like without grace. The characters exist in a fallen world, in which it is almost impossible to do the right thing even if they want to. Most of the characters are neither good nor bad, but fall somewhere along a spectrum, and most of them want only justice–but in this world it isn’t to be had.
The only unequivocally good character, the main character William Munny’s wife, is dead before the movie begins. The only entirely bad character is a cowboy who sets the movie’s plot in motion by attacking a prostitute, scarring her face and thus putting her out of a job. He disappears after this act and doesn’t reappear until he gets his comeuppance. The movie has no hope of becoming a conflict between good and evil, since the embodiments of these two concepts have nothing to do with each other, and neither have a significant role in the movie. The other characters drift helplessly between the poles of good and evil, being more or less influenced by one or the other, and sometimes trying to do the right thing but failing due to their own fundamental flaws.
The two characters who trigger the movie’s plot, the attacked prostitute and her attacker, likewise have insignificant roles in the subsequent events. As noted above, the attacker appears only during the original attack and then much later, when he reaps his reward. This occurs in a very unsatisfying way, however– rather than being cut down by the hand of Justice, he is attacked when unarmed and vulnerable, the victim of a cowardly act. Similarly, the injured prostitute, who would seem to have by rights the most significant role in this drama, stands by helplessly throughout the movie, watching as the events triggered by her own tragedy unfold without any power to direct or stop them. Several times throughout the movie the camera focuses on her disfigured face as she silently watches the scene unfold. She hardly even gets to speak at all until towards the end of the movie, when a conversation with Munny underlines the fact that she is by this time entirely outside of and irrelevant to the movie’s events.
Moving outwards from these two characters, we encounter the town’s sherriff, Little Bill Dagget; a second cowboy who might or might not have assisted the attacker; and Strawberry Alice, an elder prostitute who takes on the role of looking out for the other girls. The town sheriff arrives promptly on the scene after the attack. We see the culprits tied up in front of him, and we are at first pleasantly surprised to see that even a group of prostitutes can receive justice from the powers that be on the wild frontier. Then Skinny, the brothel owner, suddenly declares that he is the injured party since the injured prostitute will no longer generate revenue for him. The sheriff responds by decreeing that the perpetrators must give Skinny six horses, and lets them go. When Alice objects that it isn’t fair that Skinny be rewarded and the woman be left to her fate, the sheriff justifies his decision by saying that the cowboys aren’t really evil men.
Little Bill seems to be the archetype of the just lawman who wants to clean up his town–he enforces gun control and promptly tracks down and kicks out any outlaws that might come around, while wanting nothing more for himself than to live quietly in the house he’s building. The problem with him is not that he is unjust or corrupt, rather his desire for justice is corrupted and perverted by his overweening pride. He swoops in and issues decrees like the above, he uses extreme violence supposed miscreants without any kind of trial, all because he considers that he is the ultimate arbiter of justice who is never wrong. Because of his pride, instead of enforcing justice he ends up denying justice to the attacked woman by enforcing a ridiculous and irrelevant punishment against the attackers. Later his misguided zeal for his personal interpretation of justice leads him to torture an innocent man to death.
During the chaotic opening scene, it was unclear to me from the events of the movie whether the other cowboy helped with the attack on the prostitute, or was ineffectually trying to prevent it. He later tries to make amends for the attack by giving the injured prostitute a pony. This offer is rejected not by the girl herself, who stands by watching as the other prostitutes throw clods of mud at the cowboy and shout that the gift is not enough to make up for what happened to the girl. Of course it isn’t, but if forgiveness had been extended the girl’s situation would have been better and things would have gone back to the rather sad and hopeless prior state, rather then continuing to get worse and worse. But the other prostitutes are too angry to accept anything less than the attackers’ deaths, and too angry to pay attention to what the victim herself might want.
It is Alice who decides to put out a bounty on the heads of these two cowboys. She is ostensibly seeking justice, which was denied by the powers that be, but what she really wants is not justice but revenge. As a result, she commits a rash act which is guaranteed to make the lives of the prostitutes worse rather than better–she offers a larger amount of money than the prostitutes have as a bounty, and as Skinny reminds her the type of person who is going to show up for that bounty will react very badly when he find out it isn’t forthcoming. She also leads the prostitutes in rejecting the gift of a pony for the injured woman–the only chance the woman has in the entire movie to better her circumstances or receive any kind of reparations.
It is this bounty which draws William Munny into the story. He is a legend in the minds of everyone but himself. He alone knows that the stories of his feats at gunplay and daring robberies are stories of a drunken, worthless scoundrel; a weak man given to all manner of vice, and not a hero. He knows this because of his wife, now deceased, who “cured” him of drinking and carousing. Now, he is a widowed hog farmer living in poverty with his two young children. But the stories have reached a young man known as the Schofield Kid, who longs to be like the old William Munny. He hears of the bounty and tracks Munny down, asking him to come with him on this one last job. At first Munny won’t hear of it, but it doesn’t take long for him to change his mind. He realizes that the farm is failing and wants to give his children a better life, so he goes to his old partner, Ned Logan, and talks him into going after the Kid and after the bounty.
These three characters have vastly different outlooks on life. It is clear that the Kid is not as bad as he tries to make out that he is, but he aspires to be as bad as Munny once was. Logan, like Munny, has retired from the outlaw life, but he has a much more relaxed attitude toward his past and what Munny refers to as evil ways. Responding to Munny’s disparagement of his evil-ridden past life, he responds with some amusement that yeah, those sure were crazy times. He cheerfully cheats on his wife without giving it a second thought, and his reservations about the current adventure are based on practical rather than moral issues. For example, upon learning that Munny intends to stick to his resolution to quit drinking, he points out that Munny’s past indiscretions were committed while he was drunk, and doubts his ability to shoot a man in cold blood while sober. Though he doesn’t have the same moral scruples as Munny, he recognizes that Munny is betraying his own principles, whereas Munny doesn’t see it; he communicates this by pointing out that Munny would never be doing this if his wife was still alive.
Logan’s wife is an interesting character, though she is only in the movie for a few minutes. She is an Indian, and she never speaks. She gazes at Munny with sadness and disapproval from afar, and as she walks past his horse she reaches up and touches his rifle. She is another character who is simply caught up in a world that somebody else has made. She isn’t an agent, she has no power over her fate. Race doesn’t play much of a role in this movie, but the fact that there is only one Indian character, voiceless and isolated not only from other Indians but from the rest of the movie, was evocative of the fact that she is a remnant, voicless and powerless, like the Indians as a whole by this time.
Munny insists that he has changed, and he wants to believe it is true. He tries to stay true to his wife by refusing alcohol and prostitutes. But he is simply in denial about what he is doing. We hardly see a struggle as he decides to go ahead and hunt these men down to claim the bounty. His excuses are extremely flimsy–he wants the money for his children, and I guess he thinks the men deserve to be killed for what they have done, but he never even makes this rationalization explicit. Not only does he seem to think he can stay righteous by avoiding lesser sins like drinking at the same time as he is planning to commit murder for money, but he also doesn’t see the larger picture: he is leading two other people, a (fairly, in this world) innocent young person and his old friend into this act with him.
It is the consequences of these killings on his two companions that force Munny to realize that by compromising with evil, he has already capitulated. Logan, though making no pretense at righteousness in terms of alcohol and women, can’t pull the trigger when it comes to the point of shooting a man down. Munny takes it from him and shoots the man, then we must listen to him slowly die. At this point Logan decides he wants no part of it and leaves. The Kid, still wanting to be a bad guy, wants to shoot the second cowboy, and Munny agrees. Since it turns out the Kid is shortsighted, Munny spots the man and sends the Kid in for the kill. Thus the Kid kills a completely vulnerable and defenseless human being, and realizes with a shock that being an outlaw isn’t glamorous after all–it’s cowardly and wrong. As Munny and the Kid wait for one of the prostitutes to arrive with the bounty money, he tells Munny, “I ain’t like you, mister,” and he’s not recognizing Munny’s superiority, he’s saying he doesn’t want to be like Munny.
Meanwhile, the sheriff catches Logan and accidentally kills him while trying to get information about the others. When Munny hears this he realizes that he has been fooling himself, and we see this when he picks up a whisky bottle and starts drinking while he listens to one of the prostitutes describe Logan’s fate. He thought he was staying on the straight and narrow path, but the Kid’s words show him that he has already failed, and in doing so he has led his old friend to his death. The old “heroic” Munny returns, and he goes into town and exacts vengeance by single-handedly defeating an entire roomful of armed men. In a normal western, this is where the good guy triumphs over evil. But this isn’t a triumph, it’s a failure–Munny realizes that he has failed his wife, failed his children, failed to master himself. At the beginning of the movie, the fact that he could barely climb onto the back of a horse anymore made him think the old Munny was thoroughly buried, now it’s clear that he hasn’t really changed at all.
When Munny finally shoots Little Bill, as he is dying he says “I don’t deserve to die this way.” In a way he is right. He thought he was bringing justice to the west; but Strawberry Alice thought she was doing the same thing by putting out a bounty on two criminals. Munny thought he was making a better life for his children, the Kid thought he was going to become a hero, and so forth.
But earlier, while the Kid and Munny waited for the prostitute, the Kid tried to rationalize his shooting the cowboy by saying that “he had it coming.” Munny responded, “We all have it coming.” And he is right. Whatever rationalizations the characters had for their actions, every one of them was driven by greed, hatred, or pride; and every one contributed to the final pointless bloodbath. This is a result not only of the characters’ flaws, but also of the kind of world they live in: they exist in sort of a limbo in which it is almost impossible to do the right thing, they are forced into choosing between bad or worse alternatives; i.e. Strawberry Alice’s attempt to choose some sort of justice for her friend over none at all.
This world is like the Christian concept of a fallen world and original sin. We can hardly help but do evil, because our corrupt nature and circumstances we are thrust into by prior sin forces us into doing more evil. Munny’s tragedy is that he is the only one who realizes this. The other characters are at home in this world, they do what seems natural or right to them, and can’t comprehend how or why these choices are wrong or why they turn out so badly. They are trapped in a world consisting entirely of shades of gray. But Munny knows good from evil and wants good, but is barred from it by his own nature–he falls back into evil before he even realizes he’s done so. And the movie’s ending seals this tragedy: he moves away and prospers, and his mother-in-law never finds a reason why her daughter married such a person. Munny isn’t killed, his fate is worse: he is trapped in the sad and banal everyday world while knowing that there is something better that he can never attain.
Why is this? Logan tells Munny that he would never be doing this if his wife was still alive. Munny’s problem is that his savior is dead. He could only turn away from evil as long as she was there guiding him, once she was gone he was almost helpless in the face of sin, choosing it almost without thought or question and despite his desire not to, blind to the fact that it is impossible to make compromises with evil.

3 Responses to “movie review: Unforgiven

  1. KDC says:

    “The characters exist in a fallen world, in which it is almost impossible to do the right thing even if they want to. Most of the characters are neither good nor bad, but fall somewhere along a spectrum, and most of them want only justice–but in this world it isn’t to be had.”
    That is exactly what I thought about Eastwood’s latest opus, “Mystic River”. A bleak vision, indeed.

  2. michele says:

    hm, I haven’t seen Mystic River. I’ll have to check it out…

  3. Bill says:

    Little Bill: “I don’t deserve this…to die like this.”
    William Munny: “Deserve’s got nothing to do with it.”
    I saw this movie in high school and have loved it ever since. I think your comments really capture the movie and the worldviews suggested by it. Not only is it a great story, but how can you go wrong with Clint Eastwood, Morgan Freeman, Gene Hackman and Richard Harris as your main actors?
    If you like revenge/redemption movies, I’d recommend “Man on Fire” with Denzel Washington.

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