The brilliant thing about movies as an art form is that they don’t have to be singular. They can reference each other and pay homage yet still feel like a unique work. Films are iterative, constantly building upon (or deconstructing) the foundations that have been built beforehand. Unforgiven works as an excellent standalone Western but it excels when looked at from a meta perspective. It’s only by looking back at the history of the genre that you can unlock the full potential on offer here.
Clint Eastwood’s long and prosperous career mostly revolved around playing the hard staring tough guy, particularly within the Western genre. He’ll always be known for his iconic role as the man with no name in Sergio Leone’s Dollars Trilogy. A quiet loner, exceptionally fast on the trigger, never failing to kill any who get in his way. A near mythological figure, defying physics and coming out on top in seemingly inescapable situations. So who better to direct and star in a film deconstructing all that came before than the man synonymous with it all.
Unforgiven breaks down the myth of the lone cowboy. Eastwood’s character, William Munny, has turned his back on a life of heartless killings, instead, becoming a pig farmer to take care of his motherless children. Sober and Compassionate, he has become the very opposite of what he once was. Munny is slow, ageing and frail; the polar opposite of your typical cowboy protagonist – Eastwood has never felt so exposed. An honest life is a difficult one to live though, so when a chance arises to make a quick buck, he’s drawn back into the brutality of old.
The moral complexity of each character within Unforgiven provides a scathing look at the way we view a ‘hero’. A corrupt Sherriff willing to get his hands dirty to protect his town, and a talkative English bounty hunter set on chronicling the events of his life, whatever the cost. These are the two counterparts to William Munny, each with as dark a past as the next. Despite the horrifying deeds they’ve committed, they all have a valid outlook on surviving and thriving in the West. Placed in this context, Munny is no better than the rest. He’s merely just another player in the ongoing game of death. Violence is violence, no matter the reason. There are no heroes here, only liars.
So, Eastwood has stripped the Western of its iconic central leading figure but there’s still another thing left to tackle. The violence. Usually presented as a gleeful expression of revenge and justice, a celebration of inhumanity. Here, it is bleak, arduous and permanent. Each killing has repercussions. Each act of violence has consequences. There are no honourable shootouts; to win a gunfight, you must be calm and ruthless. Being quick on the draw doesn’t matter if you can’t land your shot. There is an interaction that perfectly captures the permanence of death in Unforgiven:
The Schofield Kid: “It don’t seem real… how he ain’t gonna never breathe again, ever… how he’s dead. And the other one too. All on account of pulling a trigger.”
Bill Munny: “It’s a hell of a thing, killing a man. Take away all he’s got and all he’s ever gonna have.”
The Schofield Kid: “Yeah, well, I guess they had it coming.”
Bill Munny: “We all got it coming, kid.”
Unforgiven could only have ever been directed by Clint Eastwood. It could only be him starring in it too. He has the final say on the very genre that he personified, riding one last time into the sunset. It is the very end of the Western as we know it.