The Rich Contradictions of Clint Eastwood’s ‘Unforgiven’

Clint Eastwood's final Western, 25 years old this week, remains his most complex and personal work.

 

Film | By Jason Bailey | Flavorwire

August 9, 2017

 

Currently streaming on Netflix and HBO Go.

 

The picturesque prologue that opens Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven features a wide shot at sunset, of a silhouetted figure digging a grave – an image of dark beauty opening a movie that is decidedly not a pretty picture. Much was made, at the time of its release 25 years ago (this week) that Unforgiven was Eastwood’s farewell to the Western, a promise he’s so far kept, which must not have been easy. After all, this was an actor who’d made his name in oaters, making his name on TV’s Rawhide, catapulted to international stardom via Sergio Leone’s “Man with No Name” trilogy, and chasing those films with the likes of High Plains Drifter, The Outlaw Josey Wales, and Pale Rider.

 

All were released in an era when the traditional Western had already been “demystified,” not only by Leone but “New Hollywood” efforts like McCabe and Mrs. Miller and Little Big Man. But Unforgiven still comes on like a rude awakening, resolutely determined to show the genuine desperation and depravation of the era. And it starts right away, immediately after that gorgeous opening shot; we’re transported to the town bordello in Big Whiskey, Wyoming, where an image of grunting, businesslike sex is followed by a hard, nasty, brutal confrontation, in which two visiting ranchers beat and cut poor Delilah Fitzgerald (Anna Thomson). Right away, Eastwood is painting a picture in stark contrast to the giggly good time we typically see in Western “saloon girl” scenes. The physical brutality is compounded by the chillingly matter-of-fact negotiation that follows, in which saloon owner Skinny (Anthony James) brings in Sherriff “Little Bill” Daggett (Gene Hackman) to deal with the problem of his “investment of capital” in “property – damaged property.” (Skinny is one of the most loathsome people in Unforgiven, which is quite the accomplishment.)

 

Bill works out an arrangement where the thugs pay off their assault with some horses – after all, it’s no big deal, they were just “hard-workin’ boys that was foolish.” Delilah’s co-workers, led by Strawberry Alice (Frances Fisher), decide that’s not enough punishment, not by a long shot. So they pool their funds and put the word out: they’ll pay a thousand dollars to whoever will kill the men who cut up Delilah. Eventually that word gets back to Eastwood’s Will Munny, formerly one of the most feared men in the West, killer (we’re told often, in hushed tones) of women and children. He gave all that up for a good woman, the drinking and the killing and all of it; they started a family, and started a farm. “I ain’t like that anymore,” he tells the “Scofield Kid” (Jaimz Woolvet), the cocky young gunfighter who shows up one day to recruit him. The wife “scared me out of drinkin’ and wickedness.” But now she’s gone, dead of smallpox, and sloppin’ around with sick hogs ain’t much of a life either. Maybe he’ll get back in the saddle. Just this once.

 

It’s not that easy; he can barely even get on the horse anymore, and is such a bad shot, he has to swap out his revolver for a shotgun. For safety, he brings along his old riding partner Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman); when he shows up at their gate, Ned’s wife gives Will a sour expression, and gives Ned the same one (rather than a goodbye) when they ride off. She knows no good can come of this. And she’s right…

 

... Unforgiven remains Eastwood’s masterpiece, and a film that feels so personal to him: because it presents such rich parallels between Will’s mission and Eastwood’s. They’re aging, hardened men, and they’ve learned a thing or two in their years riding and shooting. By the time they reach the end of this journey, both know what they must do – even while they’re aware, perhaps for the first time, of what it really means...

 

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