Every Sunday (or thereabouts) this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: there are few narrative tropes as well-worked as the one at the center The Dark Knight Rises, in which a man who thought he was done with all that is dragged inexorably back to a life he'd thought dead and buried for One Last Job. Less common - though still common enough that I had an actual choice to make here - is when that narrative is attached to an exercise that seeks to take a typically ebullient, friendly genre and load it up real good with a case of the Darker and Edgier.
Unforgiven is one of the absolute masterpieces of American cinema in the 1990s. From time to time, I start to wonder if something else is Clint Eastwood's finest hour as a director - The Outlaw Josey Wales, Bird and Letters from Iwo Jima have all made a run for that title at some point in my estimation - and then I rewatch it, and it's always the same feeling of recognition, the "oh hell no, this is definitely the one" moment of remembering, yes, that's right, this is a fucking brilliant and basically flawless motion picture. I felt it was fair to tell you that right at the start, because while I have every intention of demonstrating why I feel that way in the next two-thousand words and change, there's also the real possibility that this might just turn into a clumsy, fannish rave. I shall do my best to minimise such outbursts, but you have been warned.
The movie is a revisionist Western; a genre that, depending on your perspective, started sometime in the '60s, '70s, or with this very motion picture, and which seeks to replace the frothy Romantic idea of a morally untroubled American frontier, as depicted in such undemanding matinee adventures as The Searchers and The Naked Spur and such*, with a grimmer, more consequential depiction of the violence and cruelty and muddy nastiness of a world inhabited by the men and women (but mostly men) who would hear stories of a lawless wilderness largely untouched by human society and the "civilization" of the east, and think that sounded like exactly the right place to be. What it is not, is "realism", as has sometimes been pointed out; realist Westerns certainly exist with the revisionist banner, and they are usually far more admirable than actually edifying to watch. There is not much of realism in Unforgiven, for while it knocks down many of the lies of earlier films in the genre (about how effortlessly a hero can shoot down villains by the dozens, or about how you die right away after being shot in the gut), it dabbles in quite a great many lies of its own, both narrative and cinematic (no movie with such plunging, Expressionist blacks as Jack N. Green gives us in his outrageously beautiful cinematography can plausibly be described as "realistic" by anyone with even the smallest functional ability to read an image). But movies are lies, after all, and better for Eastwood & Co. to create their own mythic anti-myth rather than try to write a sober elucidation of What Life Was Like In Those Days, and give us something like Kevin Costner's intelligent but monumentally sleepy Open Range.
Above and beyond all the others things that are done win the movie, the one defining choice comes in the very first shot: it is a wildly shameless silhoutte of an isolated farmhouse on the left, against a deep red sunset, while on the right, we see a man packing dirt down underneath a tree, also in silhouette. It's pretty damn obvious that he's filling a grave, even before we know the who or why, and if it were just for the unmitigated "you can tell that this is epic and fable-like because it is so pretty and painterly" quality of the image, it would already be quite a hell of an opening shot; but the real genius of it is in a text crawl that begins its way up the left side of the frame some few seconds into the shot, beginning with "She was a comely young woman and not without prospects". That as-yet undisclosed "she", a grabby, self-consciously literary affectation (the first of many in David Peoples's arch, hyper-articulate screenplay), as well as the mini-narrative that proceeds in just a few seconds (we learn that she married William Munny, "a known thief and murderer, a man of notoriously vicious and intemperate disposition", before dying of smallpox in 1878), gives the impression of an entire story that went on before this point, one that forms a very necessary background for our current movie, and that background will be largely held away from us. It give Unforgiven, immediately, the status of being a story about stories, separating us intellectually and emotionally from everything that's going to happen in the next 130 minutes, and it is hooked up to a motif on the soundtrack, a plinking, minimalist love theme that sounds just like the characteristic music of Eastwood films forever after (indeed, he composed this tune, called "Claudia's Theme", despite the rest of the score credit going to Lennie Niehaus); this theme is repeated many times throughout the movie, always reminding us of that moment of literary disconnect at the very start, always pulling us back from the activity going on in front of us, reminding us of the conceptual distance between Unforgiven and ourselves. (Before I move on from here: Munny's home is introduced twice more, in silhouette both times, each of them further underlining the degree to which the film is putting a wall between ourselves and him).
The plot that kicks off in 1880, with Claudia Munny two years dead in the ground, is simple and straightforward enough that it could have been produced at any point in the genre's existence, albeit not with such explicit language: a cowboy savagely attacks a prostitute who spontaneously giggled when he was about to fuck her, and was given a light-unto-nonexistent punishment by Sheriff "Little" Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman), the chief arbiter of the law in this small hellhole of Big Whiskey, Wyoming. The oldest and smartest of the town's whores, Strawberry Alice (Frances Fisher) is so morally outraged by this mistreatment that she leads her colleagues to raise the unfathomable sum of $1000, to hire a gunman to kill the offending cowboy and his partner who contributed to the attack. News of this windfall spreads all the way to Kansas, where a hotheaded romantic calling himself The Schofield Kid (Jaims Woolvett) tries to talk the infamous murderer Munny (Eastwood) into coming along to gather the bounty. This Munny will only do with the help of his old partner in crime, Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman), and the three men journey to Big Whiskey to kill the cowboys and win a small fortune, with Munny trying to re-awaken the killer instinct that once made him one of the most feared men in the West.
There will always be that portion of the population that hears a plot which can be effectively summarised as "reformed killer played by Clint Eastwood avenges whores", and watch Unforgiven as a story of heroical, "good" violence saving the day. That's just how it's going to be; but that is not all the movie that Eastwood and his collaborators made. Unforgiven is a brutal, miserable story in a brutal, miserable world, in which virtually no character is more than incidentally decent: the Kid is an idiot who fetishises the violent stories he's heard so much that he's convinced that with one good chance, he could be just as bad-ass a killer as his idol, Munny (in the 21st Century, we'd call him a fanboy); Ned is completely aware that this mission is foolish, pointless, and dangerous, and still goes along with it because of the money; the entire male population of Big Whiskey is made up of thugs and savages, though some, like Little Bill, bury their savagery under the veneer of wanting to be more respectable (he is, as he mentions several times, building a house; a humanising element to the character that makes his violent behavior even more perverted than if he was just a big bad guy).
And Will Munny himself, now there's a massively complex figure: his very name tells us that he's basically in this for wholly unheroic, financial reasons, but there are ambiguous undercurrents to his character throughout the movie. At regular intervals, he speaks of his reform at the hands of the much younger Claudia, mother of his children, and his personal saint;but this is not the zeal of the converted true believer, so much as it is the rote, learned behavior of a man hoping to convince himself of something he knows isn't true. Peoples crams lines about Munny's redemption into all sorts of awkward, inappropriate corners, and Eastwood's delivery is flat and clipped and peremptory, probably the single best application of the actor's customary tight-lipped, disinflected acting style in his entire career. Munny isn't a redeemed man, and it's not entirely clear that he wants to be a good man; there's a real possibility that's hinted at but never claimed that the real reason he wants to take this job is simply because it gives him a chance to stop fighting his darker impulses, and his two noble motivations, one stated (money to improve his children's lives), one heavily implied (to do right by the women so pointless abused by the cowboys), are just the moral fig leaf he uses to excuse his decision to others and to himself. That Unforgiven raises this possibility without clearly endorsing its is probably the smartest, most revisionist part of the movie: in a genre that thrives on clear delineations between good guys and bad guys, the question, "How does a man permit himself to perform this kind of violence?" as explored through such a murky, unknown protagonist, is about as bold as could be. It's not subtle at all; but it's not a subtle genre.
Even with the black hole of Munny at the center, sucking up all the attention, Unforgiven still manages to be about more than just the corroded soul of the iconic Western gunslinger: it manages to apply a thick layer of pessimistic darkness to the entire physical setting of the American West. The film is in possession of a singularly under-appreciated dissection of the role of women in the era, as the angry whores find that, by virtue of being the lowest-ranking tier in an economic system of human relationships, literally don't matter as much as well-bred ponies - the morally outrages of Old West economic structures are in fact at the heart and soul of the movie teased out in all sorts of different places, be it the way that women were reduced to the status of a commodity, the way that money is the primary motivating factor behind the legendary heroes and villains, or Little Bill's film-long obsession with finishing his house and thereby introducing the idea of class and landownership into the free-for-all that is Big Whiskey. Even the film's most spurious thread, the arrival of gunman English Bob (Richard Harris) and his sycophant biographer W.W. Beauchamp (Saul Rubinek) demonstrates how the simplistic, overly-fantasised stories of the West, such as those Beauchamp writes about Bob's exaggerated exploits, were created largely because there was a market for telling those tales, and not such a market for the more sober, ground-level truth. Everyone is a whore in Unforgiven, and only the actual, literal whores end up feeling sympathetic for they are the only people whose actions are grounded an offense against their dignity and humanity; nobody else has any dignity or humanity to start with.
In and amongst all this grimness, Eastwood and Green still manage to build up an edifice that feels enough like a "proper" Western, with larger than life feelings and gestures, that it's not just a miserable slog (which it absolutely could have been, especially with the cast all full of typically Eastwoodian terse, reined-in performances). There's a sense of at least faded beauty in the landscape photography, which is of course quite desaturated, though nowhere near as bleached-out as the director's work in the 2000s would be; the resultant flattening of the color palette gives the film the sense of being at once grand (because of the sheer vista-ness of the settings, especially as rendered in anamorphic widescreen) and small, mean, and cold. There's also a certain arch, stagey, "there is a legend of the West and this is part of it" feel to many of the compositions including the most important, a set-up used many times throughout the film, in which a character in the foreground (typically on the left) looks to a space beyond the camera, while a character in the background (and, accordingly, typically on the right) looks at the first character, and they have a conversation that way. This does two things: the first, simply, is to train our attention to what people look like when they hear someone else talking - the film is heavy with reaction shots. The second is to further detach us from the characters, and they from one another; to make the dialogue more declamatory and expressive than to simply have it as a matter of people talking to one another.
In fact, people talking to each other rarely happens here: for the most part, characters talk past one another, even if their conversations interact. A great example is the film's most famous moment, the "Hell of a thing, killing a man" scene, in which Munny and the Kid hash out the movie's explicit themes in brutally spare dialogue; their conversation is assembled in a shot-reverse shot pattern, not a single take, but the way they are positioned in their respective frames makes it absolutely clear that they're not looking towards one another, or even paying much attention to one another; Munny's mind is clearly elsewhere (making this chat his single most unguarded emotional moment in the film), while the Kid is in a state of total incomprehension about nearly everything.
This might be the movie's signature scene because it is "cool" - Eastwood's hard-boiled recitation of his lines makes this an impossibly attractive addition to the collection of one-liners found all throughout his acting career - but the reason it's also the most important is because of those divisions it forces between the characters: here, plainly and aggressively spelling out the film's capital-M Message of violence as a poison of the soul, it also manages to depict in entirely visual ways the most specific and immediate result of a violent life: it separates one person from another, making it impossible to relate in any meaningful way, to exist in the same space at the same time. This is not a humanist message; it's not a humanist film, however much its anti-violence intentions are humanist. If that earns the film its fair share of enemies, that's probably inevitable, but from my perspective, that same nihilist wrath is what makes the film's message land so heavily: in the face of a cruel, violent world, rage and anger are the only responses that make any sense, and Unforgiven, for all its cultivated detachment from its story and characters, is one hell of an angry movie.