by Rob Gonsalves
Those who identified Clint Eastwood solely with Dirty Harry didn't see "Unforgiven" coming. This, after all, was a guy who'd just (in 1990) directed and starred in "The Rookie," an especially plastic buddy-cop comedy with Charlie Sheen. But some Eastwood fans knew to expect something good soon.Eastwood has always split his work fairly evenly between the commercial and the serious. Some thirty years ago, smack in the middle of his tough-guy peak as Dirty Harry Callahan, Eastwood chose as his second directorial effort the little-seen May-December romance Breezy (in which he did not appear, though he could plausibly remake it today with himself in the William Holden role). And he had shown, as a director, a strong interest in crafting unusual westerns: look at High Plains Drifter, The Outlaw Josey Wales (which offers the surprising sight of Clint Eastwood crying, though everyone thought it was a big deal when he shed a tear or two in In the Line of Fire), Pale Rider, and even the oddball, heartfelt non-hits Bronco Billy (Eastwood as a New Jersey salesman who poses as a sharpshooter) and Honkytonk Man (Clint as a dying country-western singer). And Eastwood had prefaced The Rookie -- one can only assume he did that one to appease Warner's stockbrokers -- with the excellent biopics Bird and White Hunter, Black Heart. Clearly something big was on the horizon, something that would banish the "Make my day" jeering forever, win over Clint's detractors, confirm the high opinions of those of us who respected him as an artist despite Pink Cadillac, and maybe garner a trophy or two.
"Clint Eastwood's tombstone movie."
That something, of course, turned out to be Unforgiven, which began life as a script by David Webb Peoples (Blade Runner, another downbeat genre-bender about a former killer grudgingly returning to violence) called The Cut-Whore Killings. Peoples' script is hands down the most beautifully shaped work to make it through the major-studio system unmolested in the last twenty years; it's one of those perfect screenplays that screenwriting professors should be teaching instead of the usual Witness or Harold and Maude. Francis Ford Coppola was going to direct it at one time, but Eastwood bought it and then sat on it for about a decade, waiting until he got a bit older, more weathered. Perhaps also he wanted to hone his directorial chops just a bit more: Pale Rider, unfortunately a rather dry and dawdling High Plains Drifter rehash (I wish I liked it more), can now be seen as practice for the equally eligiac and unhurried Unforgiven. Here, though, Eastwood is working with a script that more than fills the two hours and eleven minutes; you don't fully appreciate how much actually goes on in the script -- and how masterfully and economically Eastwood films it -- until you try to synopsize it.
It begins, indeed, with a cut whore -- Delilah Fitzgerald (Anna Thomson), who makes the mistake of giggling at a cowboy customer's "teensy pecker." The cowboy (David Mucci) slashes her face repeatedly, while his more level-headed partner (Rob Campbell) tries to restrain him. Incensed that the men get off with only a fine of seven ponies and a warning from the sinisterly avuncular sheriff, "Little Bill" Daggett (Gene Hackman, never better), Delilah's fellow whores, led by the fiery Strawberry Alice (Frances Fisher, Eastwood's inamorata at the time), raise a thousand dollars and put the word out that they're looking for assassins to avenge Delilah. Word reaches the callow, boastful "Schofield Kid" (Jaimz Woolvett), who seeks out the meanest, most dangerous son of a bitch he knows about -- William Munny (Eastwood), who now toils on his failing pig farm when he's not admonishing his two small children to "remember how your dear departed ma watches over you."
If you don't count his silhouetted figure digging his wife's grave under the opening crawl, Will Munny gets perhaps the most undignified introduction any cinema bad-ass has ever received: sliding around in muck, chasing fever-ravaged hogs. Fever will play an important role later on, and we understand that Will is wrestling with his past self and inner demons about as adroitly as he shepherds his pigs. Will hears the story of Delilah's mutilation (amusingly, the story grows more lurid with each telling, as if the teller were trying to justify his own complicity in murder by making the offense worse than it was), and he says he's doing it for the kids' sake (ah, that old cop-out), but when Will watches the Schofield Kid vanish over the horizon we know exactly what's on his mind. The old ways are calling to him; he needs to see if he's still good at the one thing he used to be fearsomely good at (and now says he regrets). He can invoke his pious wife and recite "I ain't like that no more" all he wants. The fact is, he's going.
Picking up old friend Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman, effortlessly slipping into the kind of role he says he looks for, a part not written for a black actor), Will hits the trail; they catch up with the Kid and ride towards Big Whiskey, Wyoming, where big things are already happening. Little Bill, who is ineptly building his own house (which shows you how tenuous his grasp is on the town's order), has made it concussively clear what will befall any scoundrel who pokes his guns into Big Whiskey. The dandyish English Bob (Richard Harris), accompanied by his obsequious "biographer" W.W. Beauchamp (Saul Rubinek, who seems so out of place in this western that it works hilariously well for his performance), strides into town and is promptly beaten down by Little Bill, who has a penchant for literally stomping his foes into the dirt. English Bob -- who, it's fleetingly suggested, might not even be English -- carries a self-mythologizing air about him, which Little Bill merrily debunks. Attracting Beauchamp away from Bob and towards himself, Little Bill replaces Bob's bullshit with his own bullshit. Little Bill wants Beauchamp to know that showdowns and shoot-outs are usually never as heroic as portrayed in pulp fiction: generally it's a matter of two drunks firing at each other until one of them gets shot or accidentally shoots himself. Will Munny was once the king of that milieu: a lucky drunk who managed to shoot first and accurately.
On one level, Unforgiven is a rigorous deconstruction of both fictitious violence and Eastwood's own career as a trigger-happy "hero" who once said "Shooting's all right as long as the right people get shot." The violence in Unforgiven always hurts, and the killings of the two cowboys have vast dead air around them, the silences of dread and regret. Will is also haunted by the spectres of those he killed, who usually didn't deserve it ("at least nothin' I could remember when I sobered up"), and in his fever his wife also haunts him, covered with worms just like the shades of his victims. Yet Eastwood ups the ante and turns the meanings around: When Ned is captured and killed, Will tanks up on whiskey -- the town's name is maybe a bit much symbolically, but what the hell, I like it -- and goes on a Taxi Driver-like rampage. We are now diabolically set up to want exactly the kind of violence we've been conditioned for two hours to experience as sad and squalid.
It's not, as some clueless critics charged, that the movie sells out and lapses into a violent, vengeful climax. It's that it's brave enough to acknowledge that, at the right time and place, killing people who "have it coming" -- but then again, we all do -- is not only right but also feels good. Will is never more alive in the film than when he walks into that billiard hall to the accompaniment of booming thunder -- a bit hokey, but what the hell, I like it -- and comes to terms with exactly who and what he is. It's not that he gets off on killing; it's that he's a killer, and has spent too long denying it. Perhaps now, having committed murders more justifiable in his mind than booze-soaked shootings, Will can finally be the peaceful father and farmer he seems to want to be. But who knows? Will the splattered head of Little Bill haunt him in his dreams? Or the slashed face of the kindly Delilah? One answer is in the title itself (a vast improvement over The Cut-Whore Killings, I must say), but Unforgiven provides no clearcut answers for any of the questions it raises -- just a simple final crawl that echoes the opening crawl and never fails to choke me up.Will's wife saw something in him worth forgiving; her mother didn't, and he doesn't either. We do, though. He's a killer, but he's been trying hard not to be. "Unforgiven" is about his failure.
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originally posted: 07/06/06 07:46:48