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Clint Eastwood’s ‘Unforgiven’ Closed the Book on Movie Westerns

Twenty-five years later, the genre hasn’t seen a better movie

Collage featuring Clint Eastwood in ‘Unforgiven’ Alvaro Tapia Hidalgo

“You don’t look like no rootin’ tootin’ son of a bitch and cold-blooded assassin,” the Schofield Kid says.

William Munny, who’s just fallen face-first in the mud after tussling with an ornery hog, looks up. “Say what?”

No bother pretending: the Kid — a near-sighted twerp with no reputation and not a kill to his name — knows who Munny is. He knows about the shootings of Charlie Pepper in Lake County and William Harvey, a train robber Munny killed over in Missouri. He undoubtedly knows the countless other stories, too, because everyone knows them. These things all happened years ago, but Munny’s reputation still precedes him. That’s why the Kid is here.

“I thought maybe you was someone come to kill me for something I’d done in the old days,” Munny says, hearing the Kid’s proposition.

“I could’ve,” the Kid says. “Easy.” Maybe he could have. Munny is no longer the kind of guy to have his guard up.

At the start of Unforgiven, Clint Eastwood’s classic revisionist Western from 1992, William Munny, played by Eastwood, has been redeemed — somewhat. He’s a hog farmer now, or trying to be, with two kids and little appetite for trouble. He hasn’t killed a man or had a drink in years. Marriage to his wife, Claudia, changed him. But she’s been dead three years now. In a prelude to the movie, we see Munny in silhouette, a stark black figure cutting against a beautifully ripe dusk, as he’s digging her grave. The sun is setting on that chapter of his life, the image seems to say, or so Munny thinks. “I’m just a fella now,” he’ll say in the movie. “I ain’t no different than anyone else, no more.” Later: “My wife, she cured me of that. Cured me of drink and wickedness.” He repeats this until it sounds true — or until it convinces him that his wife’s death had greater meaning.

Unforgiven turned 25 this week, and it remains a masterpiece. It was the first of Eastwood’s films to win the Oscar for Best Picture, in 1993. The best lines (“I guess you think I’m kicking you, Bob”) still sing, the seething sense of vengeance is still thrilling, and the thunderclaps still ring out with moral terror. This is a movie about what might happen when, in the dying light of a fading Old West, a cowboy is made to feel like less of a man. The specific cowboy in question isn’t William Munny — it’s a guy who cuts up a working girl’s face after she laughs at the size of his dick. But the sense of a dying ideal is broadly relevant. The movie is set in 1880, a time when, its plot suggests, the glory of the open frontier, and the liberated ways of life that came with it, was undergoing fast change. The bad boys of the 19th century — the heroic vigilantes we tell stories and make movies about — have all become old men, fathers, husbands, and widowers who’ve tamed with age, or who at least want to believe so. And the authorities who once made it their business to hunt these men have an eye on retirement. This is a time when cowboys aren’t living up to their legends.

But you can imagine the kind of gunslingers they used to be — thanks to classic Westerns. And Unforgiven is a sly reimagining of one such movie. Its plot and archetypes, as written by David Webb Peoples (Blade Runner), all point to something more typical. There’s the redeemed sinner Munny and his partner, Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman); the bevy of women taking justice into their own hands, to the tune of a $1,000 reward; the sheriff (played by Gene Hackman) in whom Munny might have met his match. There are the eye-level holster shots, the light comedy of weaker men, the sense that the bad guys are really the good guys — all typical fare.

But there’s also the question of myth. Unforgiven is a Hollywood movie, starring and directed by Clint Eastwood, whose real subject is the Hollywood movies of stars like Clint Eastwood: larger-than-life figures whose images ascended to national myth. It’s the kind of project only someone like Eastwood, who’s the living proof of what his movie is about, could convincingly undertake. It’s a revision of precisely those myths that, back in the day, overdetermined who he is and what his presence means. This makes it all the more appropriate that it’s the last and best Western of his career, and one of the best movies that Eastwood, as a director, has ever made. He closed the book on the genre. Twenty-five years later, we’ve yet to truly reopen it.

Eastwood first heard about the script for Unforgiven from Peoples in the 1980s. But he held off until he was old enough to play the lead role: Clint is, among other things, a master of movies about aging men. It’s funny that an actor who’d make his mark playing “The Man With No Name” in the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone would become one of the biggest-name actors in the history of Hollywood — to say nothing of being one of its best directors. By the time he directed Unforgiven, he’d already directed three canonical Westerns (High Plains Drifter, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Pale Rider), as well as the humorous outlier Bronco Billy, about a winkingly lame cowboy who runs a failing traveling circus.

Eastwood is the star of all of his Westerns. He is extremely self-aware: each offers a new, slightly jagged, complicating take on his persona — as if, for Eastwood, the purpose of directing a Western is to take a look at himself in a convex mirror. Unforgiven is the most revealing. On the one hand, Eastwood fills the movie with classic displays of himself: that lean heroic pose, that cock-eyed grimace he famously makes as he slowly raises his gaze, beneath the brim of his hat, to meet yours — then kills you. On the other, Unforgiven is a movie premised on undercutting the familiar power of that persona from every side. What we initially think is going to be the entry into the climactic fight — a confrontation with Little Bill Daggett (Hackman), a sheriff for whom vigilantes are villains, pure and simple — ends in Will Munny getting his ass ceremoniously beaten.

It isn’t often you get to see an Eastwood character crawling on his knees to safety after losing a fight, or even catching a cold, for that matter. But there’s something satisfyingly disturbing about the image, and Eastwood knows it. In his direction, Eastwood has built that sense of vulnerability into Unforgiven’s very bones, picking up on the questions and complications Peoples had already baked into his beautifully complicated script. Little Bill, for example, is no hero here. Even as we understand his distaste for vigilantism, we grow to distrust it. His punishment for the boys who cut up the working girl’s face is for them to give the saloon owner, who holds the girl’s contract, a few ponies. “Hell, Alice,” he says to one of the women. “Ain’t like they was tramps, or loafers, or bad men. They was just hardworking boys that was foolish. If they had given over to wickedness in a regular way —” “Like whores?” Alice interjects. Later, after Bill beats the ass of a crook named English Bob who came to kill those “hardworking boys” for the reward money, Bill looms over the camera like a hero while, in the background and just beyond the frame, the angry women seeking justice undercut him with their gaze.

Unforgiven has a distinct genre intelligence that is familiar to all of Eastwood’s finest movies, which can feel like the work of a studied rhetorician who builds our expectations and assumptions before systematically breaking them down. Eastwood uses the classical Western’s own formal strategies against it. He’ll give you the familiar lead-in to a shootout — hopping back and forth from holster to holster, gaze to gaze — only to have one man chicken out. He’ll give you the archetype of the hero motivated by the memory of his dead wife, but he’ll perform it such that the idea corrodes in front of our very eyes. We think we know what Unforgiven is going to be about, because it’s a movie that opens with steadfast tropes: a dead wife, an excuse to be a hero, and the Wild West equivalent of “Every time I think I’m out, they pull me back in.” But then that Eastwood shadow creeps in, steeping every scene in a heavy moral texture that reveals the hidden depths of what we believe to be the familiar. He loves to backlight a scene so that the shadow hits hardest when the character turns their face ever so slightly away from us — he loves even more to hit that note just when it will open up the most moral ambiguity.

It cannot go unsaid that in addition to being an incredibly thoughtful movie, Unforgiven is also, simply, a joy to watch. It is deeply entertaining. The competing moral attitudes of the characters, the manipulation of our expectations, the fabulous acting (Hackman won an Oscar; Eastwood was nominated, Freeman should have been) — it all still works, 25 years later. Who could forget the look of astonished disappointment on Ned’s face when he realizes he is no longer a killer, Will’s gentle interactions with the cut-up girl, or the fury of the climactic final gunfight? The latter is particularly memorable: Munny’s gun in the foreground, eye on the unsuspecting Little Bill and his men, as he yells, “Who’s the fella owns this shithole?” In my memory, the scene always stands out for what it does to my senses. I can feel the thunder-cracks busting the sky open outside, as if, with the arrival of the old Will Munny, all hell were in the midst of breaking loose. I can see hear Little Bill’s voice as he says, “I don’t deserve this” — I can see Munny’s shotgun pointed, off camera, at Little Bill’s face.

The final confrontation with Little Bill ultimately occurs because he is a small-time sheriff with his own sense of glory to live up to. These men aren’t fit for the second lives they’ve chosen for themselves: Little Bill wants to build himself a house and retire, but he’s a shit carpenter, and he knows he’ll never really stop being a sheriff — until the end. By then, the scales have been tipped such that the ostensible defender of the peace looks somehow morally worse off than the blood-hungry vigilantes who’ve come to defend the honor of a cut-up woman. Westerns have long been a genre to explore the difference between what’s morally right and what’s the law — in that regard, Unforgiven stays true to tradition. “Well,” the Schofield Kid says toward the end, “I guess they have it coming” — meaning the bad guys, whoever they are this time. “We all have it coming, Kid,” Will Munny says, riding off to face a fate of his own.

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