Movies That Everyone Should See: “Unforgiven”

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She was a comely young woman,
and not without prospects.
Therefore it was heartbreaking
to her mother that she would
enter into marriage with
William Munny, a known thief
and murderer, a man of
notoriously vicious and
intemperate disposition.

When she died, it was not at
his hands as her mother might
have expected, but of smallpox.
That was 1878.

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“Unforgiven” tells the story of the widower William Munny, played by legendary film star Clint Eastwood. As we’re informed by the opening scroll (above), Munny was a former thief and murderer who lost his wife to smallpox in 1878. Now he is raising their two children by himself on a small farm out on the prairie.

Prior to her death, Munny’s wife reformed him. He makes an honest living for himself now, and no longer drinks, or kills, or even cusses.

So when Munny is told “You don’t look like no rootin’ tootin’ cold blooded assassin,” as we first see him, it’s true. He certainly no longer is those things. He’s now a pig farmer and a father. A reformed man who hasn’t drawn a gun on someone in over ten years.

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When a prostitute is viciously cut up in the nearby town of Big Whiskey, the rest of her brothel raises a reward for the killing of the men who defaced her.

It’s this bounty that brings the “Scofield Kid” to seek Munny out. The kid is young and foolhardy. But he’s heard of Munny, and his prior deeds. He informs Munny of the reward and asks then asks him to join in.

It happens that Munny is facing hard times. While it’s not something he wants to do, he needs the money. Plus it seems as though they’d be serving justice. “The Kid” overstates how badly the men cut up the girl. And so, Munny sets off. He recruits an old friend along the way, Ned, played by Morgan Freeman, and together they ride off towards Big Whiskey to catch up with the “Scofield Kid” and then avenge the whore and collect the bounty.

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Big Whiskey is run by a Sheriff called “Little Bill” Daggett played by Gene Hackman in an Academy Award winning role.

Bill is certainly an ambiguous character. On the one hand, he’s not the stereotypical evil sheriff, ruling the town with an iron fist, lording over a fearful citizenry. He’s jovial, he’s liked. He’s (poorly) building a house on the outskirts of town. It seems as though his heart is in the right place, and all the things he’s doing are to protect Big Whiskey. While he’s supposed to be the town’s lawman, his methods are reprehensible. He hands out vicious beatings, whippings and killings in order to warn off others.

“Little Bill” doesn’t allow firearms in Big Whiskey. And that’s a problem with a host of bounty hunters on their way to collect on the prostitute’s reward offer.

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The trio of Munny, Ned and the Scofield Kid make their way cross the countryside, struggling against the elements and each other. After riding through the rain, Munny arrives at Big Whiskey ill. He encounters “Lil Bill” and his gang and winds up getting beaten within an inch of his life. He has to be taken out of town to be nursed back to health by the whores.

When he recovers, he makes a touching connection with the scarred girl he came to avenge. “You ain’t ugly like me,” he tells her, “It’s just that we’ve both have got scars.” They’re two wounded souls, connecting in touching manner. Munny ends the scene by telling her his wife is back in Kansas, looking over his kids. You know what he means, even if she doesn’t.

Beautifully shot in the snowy mountains of Alberta, Canada, this is one of my favorite scenes in the movie, easily.

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All that’s left to be done is the killing of the Cowboys.

The three struggle to commit the murders however. Ned has lost his taste for it, and the kid struggles to get up the nerve. The movie does an excellent job of conveying the weight of killing someone.

The deeds get done, but not without their cost. The toll is steep indeed.

And the inevitable showdown between Munny and “Little Bill” still looms.

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Between the numerous references to his old deeds, and the sizable regret that Munny is grappling with, the viewer has filled in a picture for themselves of Munny as the Antichrist, retired. A killer of such scope as to have no equal. So when he takes that swig off of the kid’s bottle, forsaking the reformation his departed wife, you know… you KNOW that all Hell is about to break loose.

And break loose it does.

When Munny rides into town, past the publicly displayed corpse, through the flickering torches and into the saloon, it feels as though he’s descending into Hell. The men awaiting him simply haven’t realized that they’re dead yet. When he growls his infamous “I’ve killed women and children” lines, we may as well be watching the Grim Reaper announcing his arrival.

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This is a movie that challenges the Western movie character archetypes. This hero isn’t just reluctant, he’s remorseful. And when he reverts to form, it’s not heroic, it’s cold-blooded. The hotshot kid is full of shit, a little slow, nearsighted and actually full of fear. The evil Sheriff is well liked by the town, and seems like a nice guy when he’s not making misguided efforts to act in the town’s best interests.

To the viewer aware of Eastwood’s filmography, Munny feels self referential. It’s next to impossible to watch a man who has killed hundreds if not thousands onscreen playing a character who bemoans killing, and not feel he’s actually being personally remorseful. This is Eastwood’s “The Shootist”. Per the film’s Wikipedia page, “The concept for the film dated as far back as 1976 under the titles The Cut-Whore Killings and The William Munny Killings. Eastwood delayed the project, partly because he wanted to wait until he was old enough to play his character and to savor it as the last of his western films.”

The cinematography here is beautiful. The movie isn’t afraid to linger over the beautiful country the story is set in. The fields, the mountains, the woods and streams, they’re as much the stars as Eastwood, Freeman and Hackman. Surprisingly it didn’t capture the Academy Award that year, losing to “A River Runs Through It”, also a gorgeous movie. In many, many other years, this movie would have walked away with the Cinematography statuette with ease.

But there was no shortage of awards and accolades for this film. It won four Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Editing and Best Supporting Actor (Hackman). It was also nominated for five others, including Best Actor for Eastwood. It appeared on AFI’s 100 Years… 100 Movies list at number 98, and when the tenth anniversary list was released, it rose a full thirty spots to number 68. They currently have it as their number four western of all time.

I’m certain that the estimation of this film will only continue to increase with time as well.

It’s definitely a “Movie That Everyone Should See”.

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35 thoughts on “Movies That Everyone Should See: “Unforgiven”

  1. You have to give Clint Eastwood credit for knowing how to pick ‘em. He said this would be his last western, and it is arguably his best. Same thing with Gran Torino, he says its the last movie he will act in, and it is among his best.

    And the best line in this one sums up the whole movie, “Hell of a thing killin’ a man. You take away everything he’s got, and everything he’s gonna have.”

    • Totally. Gran Torino was fantastic, too.

      I think that line is one of the best lines of all time. It’s in Eastwood’s delivery, too. He’s just so haggard, and his character has been built up as a total killing machine, but he regrets it.

      So when you hear him say that, it’s got such weight to it. You KNOW he knows what he’s talking about.

  2. This is my favorite western as well. The movie itself presents a simple storyline, the understandable concept and expectation, however, the journey taken is an emotionally conflicting transformation that ends in an epic climax. Really great delivery.

    • Excellently put.

      The characters definitely drive this movie. The story itself is reletively basic, you’re right. But the characters – each of them, every one in the movie – feel like they’re deep and alive. They’re all done so well it feels as if you know who they really are. Not a lot of movies can say that.

  3. Great movie. One of the all time classics. My favorite western is still “The Good The Bad and The Ugly,” but for different reasons entirely. “Unforgiven” is something every film fan should watch and rewatch. I notice something new every time I see it.

      • My love for “The Good The Bad and The Ugly” is that it is the perfect western. It is epic in scope, length, cinematography, characters, music, and well, everything. And let’s talk about that soundtrack. No western can even come close to such an iconic (and often copied) musical score. I like the characterizations that nobody is completely one-dimensional. Even “The Bad” has some moments where he is good. Also “The Good” is only good in comparison to the other characters who are far worse human beings. The action scenes are great, too. Anyone can wax philosophical all they want about Western Archetypes and setting and representations and blah blah blah. But let’s face facts: the whole point of the western genre is to be a badass. And no movie has more badasses than “The Good The Bad and The Ugly.”

      • The Good, The Bad and The Ugly theme should be playing right now…

        I feel like I’m the saloon keeper on the side of the street watching the gunfighters sizing each other up…

        Seeing if anyones going to come back at that…

  4. One of the best western films ever made, and certainly the best one made in modern times (Tombstone, I think, is the only one that can even get within eyesight of it.) There’s a lot of deconstruction of old western stories going on here, but it’s all done with a high degree of respect for the genre and an eye toward realism. I particularly liked the way Little Bill shows up the “Duck” of Death; those dime-store novels and other self-aggrandizing acts of merchandising (hello, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show) were a real and common thing towards the end of the era, and the greater part of it was completely made up by the protagonists. The people who had really been involved in a large number of gunfights and adventures, after all, had a tendency to wind up dead sooner or later, and so weren’t around to tell their tales.

    • Yeah. Well, LOL. Bill shows up English Bob, but then the crowning jewel is when the writer Beauchamp, tries to latch on to Will Munny after he kills everyone in the Saloon.

      Will wasn’t having none of that!

  5. It is a great film, brilliantly made and a notch in the belt of Eastwood (pun intended), but it’s not even in my top 10 westerns. For me, a western needs heroes, not anti-heroes. The man with no name was a dark and viscous hero, but still a hero. The Duke was clearly a hero. Gary Cooper was the very figure of the western hero in High Noon. Butch and Sundance. Yul Brenner and his 6 sidekicks. Even last years True Grit remake was in my mind a better western. When you talk genre bests, it’s not necessarily a plus to exceed the genre.

  6. Unforgiven is one of my favorite movies of all time. I love everything about it; its characters, script, pacing, everything! It completely transcends its genre and lays most other westerns to waste.

  7. I might have to disagree with you on here, man. Westerns are my favorite next to a good piece of Science-fiction, but I though Gene Hackman was as awesome as he always is, but the rest of the cast couldn’t carry this one. I think the music bothered me the most. It just seemed a little thin.

    My favorite has to be Once Upon a Time in the West if I were to pick a western.

    I love the blog though. just weighing in

    • Thanks!

      And don’t sweat it, that’s what its all about, you know? Put it out there. Tell us what you think, even if it’s against the grain…

      I feel pretty strong in my position here though. :D

  8. I can’t agree with you more, this is definitely a movie everyone should see. The great thing about this film, as you astutely point out, is how it is both an extension of Eastwood’s involvement in the Western genre as actor and director, and collectively epitomizes all the different characters he’s portrayed for over 50 years! That’s indeed a special place in cinematic history and one that deserves the bevy of awards and accolades the film earned. I enjoyed your detailed accounting of the story and characters with the selections of images you put together to help support your commentary. By the looks of your site I’ve got a lot to see and catch up to modern times – then again, it’s more about the road and the stops along the way than where we’re heading, right? I try and explore films as they occur around me, either through watching an old classic or revisiting a more current release, on the recommendation of a friend or someone interested in discussing a film we respectfully disagree about, or fresh from the theater. Like yourself, I spend quite a bit of time discussing movies with people and it felt only natural to focus my conversations into a blog – mine is called Above The Line and I’d like to welcome you on over.

    @nerdseyeviewhollywood – Great choice, I’d agree that Once Upon A Time.. but I think the two films are different enough to be just fine side by side rather than one better than the other.

    cheers->

    • Well, thanks for the kind words, and I’ll definitely swing by soon to check out what you’ve got going on.

      On Unforgiven, I definitely feel as though it works better if the viewer is aware of the “meta” aspect of it… that is, what Eastwood brings to the table via his body of work. It’s a great movie even without, but with it, it just feels so… meaningful. I dont know. Its an awesome flick.

      And take your time catching up! Rushing is never a benefit to anything!

  9. Pingback: A Filmster Quickie: Unforgiven | The Filmster

  10. My favorite western also. I loved the challenging of Western movie stereotypes, especially the irony garnered from the fact that it was Eastwood of all people tearing down the very archetypes and criticizing the integral genre tropes that he’d helped so much to create. ‘Unforgiven’ is almost like a puzzling act of atonement for Eastwood’s past “sins” as a glorifier of Hollywood violence.

    With all that said, there has always been something about this movie’s story setup that bothered me, however negligible, and that was exactly how the prostitutes went about plotting their revenge. I never understood how such socially stigmatized, downtrodden individuals were able to get away with putting up a double-MURDER bounty. Why did Hackman put up with them and let them walk about the town as free citizens after posting the bounty? Would he not have just thrown them in jail to punish them for attempting to attract such violence and lawlessness to Big Whiskey?

    What are your thoughts on that?

    • I think by the time Lil Bill heard about it, the word was already out, and he had to worry about the actual bounty hunters showing up. The Duke (Duck LOL) of Death for example. Keep in mind, they certainly didnt post the bounty right there in Big Whiskey… they would have sent word to neighboring towns, etc. So there probably wasn’t much he could do in order to clamp down on the bounty (except throw them all in jail as you mention), and he already had his hands full with bounty hunters.

      Meanwhile, it also may be that posting a bounty isn’t illegal… Maybe they actually didnt violate any laws? :D

      Glad to hear you’re a fan of this film, though, Predator, I love it. Great flick!

  11. I am not a great fan of western movies but if I ever had to pick one I’d pick this. A masterpiece, story character, everything. And when he get to the saloon for the final climax you feel like if you was there with him to face the “badlier” guys.

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