Dir. Clint Eastwood. Starring Clint Eastwood, Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman
If you give an actor the director’s chair, he’ll want his star persona to go with it. This is how we end up with Unforgiven, which looks like it’s rattling along as an interesting movie until it works itself out, unsurprisingly, as Eastwood machismo killporn in the end. The Will Munny who has been reformed by a years-dead wife, the one who won’t touch liquor and can’t hold his pigs either, for that matter, is gone. Also missing is the cold-blooded killer with sharp aim and no conscience to speak of. Little by little Munny (Eastwood) rediscovers these traits in himself as he is roped back into the game by the Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett), the Millennial of the 1880s. He’s heard about a $1,000 bounty out for a pair of cowboys who mutilated a whore in Big Whiskey, and having already heard the stories about Munny from a gunslinger uncle, he seeks out a living legend who has retired from that life. The Kid is grating even in his best moments; he’s full of braggadocio, and he’s obviously lying from the moment he opens his mouth about his escapades and his many bloody works. Munny doesn’t speak about them, and that’s how you know he’s done it all.
Will, Ned (Freeman), and the Kid are the main characters of the movie, I suppose, but a plot about two old men and a greenhorn riding out for—on the count of three—one last job feels tired not just as a plot summary but in practice as well. The bushwhacking Will and the reforming Will would both be more interesting protagonists than this Will who was half-empty and is now filling himself up again. Ned discovers after shooting down one of the cowboys accused of the crime that he doesn’t have the stomach for it anymore. Will gets sick on the way to Big Whiskey because of a torrential storm that soaks him to the skin, and thus has to take a pretty good beating from the sheriff, Daggett (Hackman), before he’ll come back and do his growl-shoot-scowl bit. All this is meant to build drama, but there is an inevitability in the film which undercuts how far the drama can really go. (Raise your hand if you really thought Eastwood would give someone else the last word in the movie he directs and stars in.)
Unforgiven receives plenty of praise for its “revisionist Western” credentials, which included Best Picture and Best Director for 1992, but there’s no element of the movie that feels like it’s rewriting the genre in a way that it hadn’t already been rewritten before. Fading hotheads try to walk away with a bonanza and realize how old they really are? The Wild Bunch. A legend of the western plays old but still manages to save the day despite his seeming decrepitude? She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. A mob with only the vaguest backing of the law does something unforgivable? The Ox-Bow Incident—released in 1943, just four years after Stagecoach became the Gospel of Westerns. The whores are the only ones with a consistent moral center and the pragmatism to get things done? McCabe and Mrs. Miller. Criminals are actually the good guys? Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. An outrageously bad law enforcement system comes to the rescue of the propertied at the expense of those with nothing? Heaven’s Gate. An unwilling gunfighter goes ham on his foes once he’s been left totally alone? High Noon. We could do this all night with other westerns, the majority of them stronger than Unforgiven. I don’t mean to make it sound like this movie is clumsy or bad or dull, because it is none of those things. Unforgiven achieves at a high level throughout, particularly in its excellent cinematography by Jack N. Green; Green’s reds are moody and bad for blood pressure. But a quick glance at the critical consensus of major reviewers finds the phrase “overturns conventions” thrown out there by Steven Rea and James Bernardinelli. Vincent Canby used bigger words: “pays homage to the great tradition of movie westerns while simultaneously expressing a certain amount of skepticism.” It ain’t Gunsmoke, but Unforgiven is as much a maverick as John McCain.
Where Unforgiven really does deserve a lot of credit is in Little Bill Daggett, who is far and away the most interesting character the movie has. In a lifetime of great roles, I’m inclined to call this Hackman’s best. Little Bill (don’t Google it…Gene Hackman is better than six feet tall) is the living embodiment of “Well, actually,” who sneers at the pants-wetting biographer tailing gunman English Bill (Richard Harris) around, but who quick co-opts Beauchamp (Saul Rubinek) for himself once he’s kicked the tar out of Bill, jailed him for a minute, and then sent him out of town. Little Bill has an eye on history, specifically his own, and five years after the assassination of Wild Bill Hickok in Deadwood, Little Bill fancies himself one of the last of the great lawmen of the West. His first play at justice is unsatisfying, to say the least. A customer at a brothel (“here for the billiards,” in Big Whiskey vernacular) is vexed when his lady laughs at his shrimpy appendage and takes his knife to her. Little Bill is called in to adjudicate, and his decision is to side with capital. Skinny (Anthony James), the proprietor, is to receive a number of horses from the offender (David Mucci) and his pal (Rob Campbell), and they are set free without paying a fine in money or blood. The chief whore, Alice (Frances Fisher), is aghast—he ain’t even going to get a whipping? Little Bill keeps the scales tilted towards him by outlawing guns in his town, and finding such a weapon on a man turns into a way to kick him around before setting him on his sorry way. (I guess I’m sensitive to the times—it’s been twenty-five years since Unforgiven, after all, and we were still a year away from the Brady Act, but that sign forbidding firearms outside Big Whiskey feels like a tacit argument against gun control. You know the one: “If we give up our guns, then we can’t protect ourselves from an oppressive government.” It ain’t the good guys calling for gun control!)
These men are assassins, of no character, according to Little Bill, and he’s never shy to let them know what kind of scum they are; nor is he shy about letting his audience know his virtue. If a woman and Ned tell different lies, he tells Ned, well, he wouldn’t hurt a woman. English Bob, he tells Beauchamp, wasn’t really so tough, wasn’t above shooting and killing a man whose pistol had just exploded in his hand. People make a habit of talking to Will about the deeds he’d done in the past, but only Bill brings up the women and children that Will offed. The connection between the Williams is clear enough, and simplistic at that. One of them is a decent man who has done some bad things in the past, and the other fancies himself decent and who is doing bad things in the here and now. Where Eastwood makes his typical lawnmower noises, one doesn’t get the sense that Hackman is going back to the well so much from his previous iconic performances. There’s more than a little Popeye Doyle hanging around, sure, but I can’t think of another role which has given Hackman an opportunity for barking one-liners of this general quality. (“Hell, even I thought I was dead until I found out it was just that I was in Nebraska,” “You just think I’m kicking you, Bob,” “Misfire!”) He takes to them, and the menace that might have made him, I dunno, Lee Van Cleef with Charlie Brown’s head, never really comes through. Bill is malicious instead, nasty, a cheap shot in human flesh. But he’s not frightening, and that thin line looks like a red carpet the way Hackman walks it.
There’s a sly intelligence in Bill’s chief interest throughout the movie. He’s building a house for himself, and as one man reports, there’s not a straight angle in the entire place. When the rain comes in, Bill has half-a-dozen receptacles lying around to catch the water. Nor, do we find out, does he have a sense of humor about it. Beauchamp, by now in Bill’s pocket and scooping out his self-important stories like so much lint, makes a crack that Bill ought to “hang the carpenter.” Bill doesn’t laugh it off, or take stock of a house that’ll probably have an inch of standing water in it come morning. He takes offense instead; nothing could be more wicked or pretentious, in his eyes, than to challenge the vision of the person he believes he is. This is true even when there are no witnesses to a perceived slight, and this is why English Bob is a more necessary character in the movie, if we’re honest, than Ned. Bob, with his snappy patter about the inferiority of the presidency to royalty puts Bill on a stage from the first. This is a great favor to Bill, who seems to relish nothing more than a stage to perform from. Every punishment takes place in front of people who will watch him inflict violence. Even Ned’s death at Bill’s hand, though mercifully offscreen, ends with him being placed in a coffin and put out front of Skinny’s place with a warning to other “assassins.”
Bill’s scenes are almost unanimously fascinating—he makes a good point at the end of the movie when he says that he doesn’t deserve the death he’s getting, because the scene where he gets it is kind of a drag. Aside from him, one finds reason to stay interested in the movie in the supporting cast and the small pinpricks of light they project. English Bob’s endless cracks about the American system of government, including his Parthian shots, give the movie some much-needed humor. As Davey, Rob Campbell has the energy and enthusiasm which gives us some sympathy for a man with a bounty on his head. The Munny children have some spunk to them, doing what they can to separate the sick hogs from the healthy ones. (One of Eastwood’s two or three best scenes in the entire movie, incidentally, is in that pigpen.) Beauchamp, who exemplifies the Liberty Valance quote about printing the legend at the expense of the truth, has none of the wisdom of Ranse Stoddard or Maxwell Scott, let alone Tom Doniphon. He is gullible and foolish and fearful, the only man in the movie who has a genuine (and relatable) fear of a gun in his face. Many a good western knows that the success of the picture is often bound up in its supporting characters, and that’s a tradition that Unforgiven follows perfectly well.