For feeling sad, Unforgiven is without question one of the most effective of movies. So many of life’s miseries are cataloged here, from loss of life and broken relationships to the weight of guilt and a lack of purpose. Granted, the material is much grayer than the norm for tearjerkers, and we’re miles away from the expressions of human decency that Roger Ebert said made his eyes well up. Perhaps sadness isn’t quite the right word for what Unforgiven is doing. Perhaps another word often used in the definition of melancholia will serve better: gloom. The moral seriousness of Clint Eastwood’s film, the story that imprisons its characters in a morally smudged world, makes for the height of gloominess upon reflection. That Eastwood was able to make an entertaining film in spite of this might be cause for concern. The age-old argument is that the depiction of violence on film all too easily veers toward glorification. Indeed, the climax of the film is satisfying as a long-delayed emergence and a clear-cut act of retribution. But at the same time, it represents the betrayal of a solemn vow, a relapse from which there will be no recovery. Unforgiven questions the value of some of American machismo’s most thrilling impulses.
The most famous and celebrated “revisionist Western” of them all, Unforgiven isn’t really concerned with indicting a whole Hollywood genre. Its interests are at once narrower and more expansive than that — the extinction of a handful of stubborn myths. Eastwood was the perfect man for this job. He was well-aware how important westerns were to his own career and persona, but he wasn’t biting the hand that fed him with this film. As a filmmaker, he has a deep respect for the traditions and history he inherited. With Unforgiven, he was explicitly going after his own part in the mythmaking. This film contends that the Western’s long line of “antiheroes” — outlaws, gunslingers, loners who lived by a personal code — weren’t really any kind of heroes at all. They may yet be compelling; in fact, good storytelling demands this. But their importance in paving the way for civilization is questionable at best.
Unforgiven is about one such figure, William Munny (played by Eastwood), a violent man who finds an upstanding citizen to marry and then renounces his past life. When the story begins, his wife has died, and he is left to raise their two children alone in the wilderness. A much younger man rides up to him one day and, knowing Munny’s reputation, offers to split the reward for killing a pair of ruffians who brutally attacked a woman. Munny’s inadequacy as a farmer, and the perceived righteousness of avenging the woman, are reason enough for him to accept the offer. First, though, he will take a seat at his wife’s graveside, an archetypal scene straight out of a John Ford film. But no eloquence is forthcoming from this man. His feelings for his wife are private, and he couldn’t quite articulate them beyond platitudes anyway. This is the no-frills Eastwood style of filmmaking in a nutshell: a gruff, tight-lipped expression of feeling, and then on to the next scene.
The workmanlike approach is perfectly in keeping with the moral development of the story. This isn’t a case where seemingly heroic actions are suddenly upended by a disaster or revelation; the filmmakers’ mission to keep us from feeling good about anything is underway from the beginning. Early scenes with the wronged woman, a prostitute named Delilah (Anna Levine), make it clear that moral redress is impossible, given the legal and economic structures in place. The idea for revenge comes from Delilah’s colleagues. She herself appears ambivalent, stoic. Killing a couple men won’t take away the scars on her face or what those scars will do to her livelihood. Meanwhile, William Munny’s motivation for seeking the reward is cloudy. I’m not satisfied that “Family man who wants to punish those who do harm to women” is an adequate description of him. It could merely be that he takes the job because killing is the one thing he knows how to do well.
One of the most famous bits of dialogue in the film happens late, after the main plot is resolved but just before Munny learns that he won’t escape intact. His young companion, the Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett), has just expressed his shock and surprise at what it felt like to shoot a man down. Munny replies, “It’s a hell of a thing, killing a man. You take away all he’s got, and all he’s ever gonna have.” On the surface, this is straightforward enough, blunt to the point of tautology. But what’s interesting is how the claim can be reversed. If you kill a man, you take away all you’ve got, and all you’ll ever have. The act of murder, as in Erich von Stroheim’s Greed, chains the killer to the killed. There’s no escaping the consequences, whether the law gets involved or not. For Munny, murder had been a way of life for so long that he could never be rid of it, either by reputation or inclination. Unforgiven is ultimately the story of someone who stays on the wagon for years before finally, fatally, falling off.
Everything leading up to the film’s climax is brilliantly constructed to build anticipation. Information about what precisely Munny did in his former life is doled out in bits and pieces, and at the same time it becomes clearer and clearer that this is an aging man, despite Eastwood’s commanding presence. Similar movies might show the light in the lead character’s eyes fading as he enacts bloodbath after bloodbath, but Unforgiven is somewhat unique in showing Munny to be both broken down and, well, unforgiven. This is the final act of the man’s life, and it’s an empty one. There is a cruel catharsis in the death of “Little Bill” Daggett (Gene Hackman) in retaliation for the manslaughter of Munny’s friend Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman). But this is a soulless currency: death calls for more death. Munny exits via rain-soaked streets at night, beside building facades leeched of color. He won, and there’s nothing sadder than that.