Unforgiven is about as gutsy and ravaged a film as you’ll find from a mainstream American director, a work which not only deconstructs a genre of film but the filmmaker’s entire career. It’s seeped in merciless violence, but as much a violence which occurred decades before the film begins as any violence which occurs from first reel to denouement. It rolls over the arid hills of the American West, bathed in a dark, ominous red of the blood done in the past but which refuses to be forgotten. With Unforgiven, Eastwood not only tears down the violent core of America’s past, but he has a few choice words for the gaze we place upon violence in modern society. We’re fascinated with it. And Eastwood, a man whose career was built on celluloid violence, knows this well. He runs us through the wringer with quiet, elegiac visual poetry which provides us with a dreamy, mythic Western landscape and that turns out to be a nightmare clinging us to our past. This is cinema of implication, with Eastwood questioning whether we can ever break from the horror-show of the Western genre and underlining his question in blood red strokes.
On the surface, Unforgiven subverts stereotypes by making the hero the villain and the villain the hero. Will Munny, played by Eastwood, is a long-past-his-prime thief and outlaw living on his own in a partial attempt at redemption and a partial realization that society has no place for him. Little Bill, played by Gene Hackman like a scarily genial version of his cantankerous Popeye Doyle character, is a law-abiding and law-making borderline-fascist town sheriff who treats criminals with little sympathy and even less mercy. The film, in a nutshell, is Munny’s attempt to come to terms with his past through “doing right” in the today by ending Bill’s reign over Big Whiskey, the town he calls empire.
This analysis, while superficially true, doesn’t delve far enough into the film’s exploration of violence and its cyclical, unending nature. Little Bill, while abusive, also feels he is doing right by the town and acts as many Old Western lawmen had in Eastwood’s old films, and those films which came before him. Watching him we’re not just coming to terms with the fact that a law-abiding citizen could be, if he wanted, violent and abusive, but that this violence and abuse is often one with the law and fundamentally part of the core, the essence, of the harshness of the American West. He isn’t “different” from other sheriffs, an exception to the norm, but one with them. He is a reflection not of Western violence, but of the institutionalization of Western violence.
Eastwood meanwhile plays a character much like the ones he played decades before: a loner with a sense of duty and justice defined by himself, a sort of live-and-let-live libertarian figure that populates the dreams of Americans and the fabric of American society. While the film paints this character in an understanding light, viewers who claim he’s the “hero” misplace Eastwood’s sympathy. He may utilize his own code to come to terms with the violence found around him, but at the end of the film we come to realize that his attempts to redeem himself via violence for violence he committed in his past remain unforgiven. He’s answering “violence with violence” with violence, and Eastwood isn’t about to forget this, nor let us forgive this figure for his crimes. A brief epilogue seems to posit a happy life for Munny, but the phrasing begs to differ – he only has a happy life in rumours and myths, like those of Old Western films that try to paint such characters in a positive light. Real life has something else in store.
Pointedly, when Eastwood talks about forgiveness and the possibility of making amends for his past actions, he does so without grandeur or desperation; he sounds bored by it, saying it over and over to give himself something to pass the days even when he doesn’t believe it. And when he talks to another younger character about killing, we don’t get the sense that he’s giving advice to him. The way the scene is edited, with the two intentionally looking out into the distance rather than at each other, gives off a sense that he is speaking to himself more than anything else. Sure, he’s now interacting with people, something we get the sense he hasn’t done in a long while. But the presence of others only enhances the loneliness the film lends him – he can’t truly connect with them even when they are present. His violence has left him a shell of a person.
This is a dangerous, almost unfathomable proposition for an actor who has always been a poster-child for masculine violence for just causes and the American mythic loner-like individual who rises up to save the day. This is a film that postulates that all those images and myths were distraught to the core and that all those men, if they existed, were festering products of a festering society whose only potential use was to bring down that society with them. There’s heartbreak and tragedy here, but it isn’t the sentimental kind.
Many Westerns gave us an outlaw as a hero – a subversive act which nevertheless succumbs to its own mythic American moral system in which the most moral figure of all is the loner and the libertarian who gives society the finger and lives by his own moral code, not society’s. Here, we’re given something scarier – an eternal, sun-drenched grey, sapped of any color by a weathered, brow-beaten land that is matched only by Eastwood’s creviced, sand-paper face. We’re given something which posits not that the true American hero is often labelled the outlaw for his disregard for society’s ways, but that this hero never really existed in any form. Essentially then, Unforgiven is a tale of two violent systems, the old individualist “men of a code” rule-set populated by the libertarian outlaws of the Old West epitomized by Munny, and the newer, more institutionalized violence stamping out men like Munny with its own form of rampaging murder, epitomized by Little Bill. Unforgiven breaks the chain of having to choose one or the other – to either support “the system” or the renegade white male vigilante who bucks the system only to conform to that system even more. Instead, the film posits that neither ideological lexicon wins out, and that both essentially swallow on another in the violence of the American imagination.
Even more notable than Eastwood’s question of violence is the way he tells the story through the film’s formal energy. Unforgiven renders the Western as noirish horror, with all the typical iconography, both landscape and human, we expect for the genre. Except here, rather than mystical and mythic, the icons are angry and enraged or quietly despairing. There is a surfeit of flat plains and tumbleweeds to be found in the film – they’re ubiquitous – but they’re bathed in a crimson red bleeding into a decayed blackness. Here, the loneliness of the Wide Wide West isn’t a beacon of righteous individualism but of perpetual emptiness. The tumbleweeds are nothing but floating, distant, hopeless reminders of how little the West has for us, and had for anyone. Eastwood uses the iconography of the West to ask why we value this iconography – he uses the myth to challenge the myth.
All in all, Unforgiven is a stirring critique of the American West and the values it purported to live by, a dark, perceptive look into the underside of American society that causes us to question individualist outsiders as much as would-be moral authority figures. It breaks down, rather than simply flipping, the roles of lawman and outlaw. And it’s as weathered and downright tired as the characters it gives us, a marriage of style and subject of the utmost perfection. As a thoughtful meditation on the nature of violence and a re-reading of the American West, Unforgiven has weathered the test of time. Today, it’s considered the last incomparable classic Western American film. This is perhaps most fitting of all: the end of an era of film matched to a nihilist yarn, here given both legendary proportions and knocked down to size, that paints the whole American “project” in a new light and leaves little place for conventional Western cinema anymore. In its half-glimpsed, lurking menace, tinged with the most inquisitive pock-marks of aching sadness, the film suggests precious little in the way of an escape route for Eastwood, or for anyone who dreams in pallid white, water-logged blue, and just the nastiest smears of crimson red.