Unforgiven (1992)

Clint Eastwood | 2hr 11min

When Lee Marvin’s villainous outlaw was killed in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, James Stewart was hailed as a hero. When Clint Eastwood won the climactic shootout of The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, he projected victory merely from his cool, confident swagger. In Unforgiven, there is no glory to be found in deadly quests for vengeance, and those who see them through to their end are called out for what they are – murderers. Ex-outlaw and retired gunslinger Will Munny wears that label with shame, preferring to put his violent past behind him so his two motherless children can grow up in a safer, kinder world, though the temptation to dredge up old habits lie on the horizon. A bounty on two men who cruelly mutilated a prostitute offers easy money that he desperately needs, but in Eastwood’s self-assured direction and sensitively layered performance, he incisively undermines the Old West mythology and Hollywood conventions that he built his career on.

Eastwood taking a leaf out of John Ford’s playbook, hanging the horizon low in the frame.

In fact, virtually every tale of fortitude, skill, and machismo told in Unforgiven is as unstable as the lies they are built on, attempting to rewrite a history of America that is far more honourable than its reality. Having once personified and subsequently shied away from its egotistical sadism, Munny is among the few characters who has seen the ugly truth, though acting as a counterpoint to this we find Richard Harris’ haughty, foreign gunfighter, English Bob. So conceited is this man that he has even hired a biographer to follow him around and transcribe his exaggerated stories, choosing to build a legacy not through organic word-of-mouth, but through his own contrived fabrications. Even his own aristocratic Britishness is a front, with his upper-crust accent concealing Cockney origins, and thereby suggesting that his own move over from England was likely motivated by the empty allure of the American Dream he now wishes to propagate.

Compared to English Bob’s thunderous arrival in the gun-free town of Big Whiskey, Munny arrives with much less pomp and circumstance. Huddled inside his coat and hiding under his wide-brimmed hat, Eastwood appears small, weak, and closed-off, diminished beneath the huge stature of Gene Hackman’s iron-fisted local sheriff, Little Bill. Turning this ambassador of the law into the villain of the piece and setting him against Eastwood’s heroic outlaw makes for a smartly subversive role reversal, and the process of seeing the latter sharpen up his old skillset and adopt the familiar mentality of a cold-blooded killer consistently raises the tension leading up to their eventual showdown.

This is a very different Western performance for Eastwood compared to the Man With No Name. There is deep-seated shame in his physicality, hunched over and shivering in his coat.

Within this ensemble of morally grey characters, the nihilism of Sergio Leone cynically asserts itself as a significant influence, and consequently so too does his fusion of magnificent blocking, camerawork, and dusty palettes that pervade Unforgiven’s mise-en-scène. Although predominantly shot in Alberta, the gorgeous scenery of dry grass, forests, and mountains form spectacular rural landscapes representing Wyoming and Kansas. When horizons hang low in the frame, Eastwood relishes isolating his characters against the wide-open skies, at times capturing it at magic hour when its setting sun burns a bright orange. When our attention turns to the action on the ground, he crafts some superbly staggered compositions out of his actors, staging the prostitutes seeking the bounty together as a cohesive unit, while low angles and guns hem in those at the mercy of Little Bill’s henchmen.

Masterful blocking from Eastwood, using wooden beams to draw lines in the frame and lining the prostitutes into the background from this low angle.
Gene Hackman in a position of power, backed up by dozens of men in the background, and then shrinking Richard Harris in the frame, closing enemies in around him.

Tracking shots are used a little more sparsely in Unforgiven, and yet they still intermittently bring a thick immersion into the action and suspense, whether we are following Munny in a quick getaway or adopting his perspective during his vengeful return to Big Whiskey. Outside the saloon, his old friend Ned lays dead in a coffin with a warning sign for all those looking to cause further trouble, though he is not even slightly fazed. The same rage and vindictiveness which fuelled his life of crime decades earlier have returned darker than ever, seemingly bringing with it an angry storm that mercilessly beats down on the town and unnervingly accompanies his daunting monologue to Little Bill and his henchmen.

“I’ve killed women and children. I’ve killed just about everything that walks or crawled at one time or another. And I’m here to kill you, Little Bill, for what you did to Ned.”

A slow tracking shot through town…
…and a low angle tracking shot in on Eastwood’s powerful stature, meeting him at his darkest point.

The camera tracks in on him from a low angle and thunder reverberates in the background, presaging what we expect to be a thrilling, drawn-out confrontation between these hard-bitten adversaries. The massacre that Eastwood delivers instead is no great struggle for Munny, whose calm composure and quick draw instantly mows down Little Bill and his men, and yet this doesn’t feel like a victory. As he previously told his younger, bounty-hunting companion, the Schofield Kid:

“It’s a hell of a thing killing a man. You take away all he’s got, and all he’s ever gonna have.”

This is a lesson the Kid only learns when he experiences it himself for the first time, shooting his quarry who he finds sitting defenceless on a toilet. There is nothing bold or courageous about this murder, and we see a pitiful change take place in this boy who, like English Bob, had built his entire reputation on the lie of being a fearsome gunslinger. Only when he becomes exactly that can he see the utter shame of it, and much like Munny, choose to walk away from the life he had always revered.

A superb arrangement of the rickety set design with the snowy landscape of mountains in the background.
Eastwood’s split diopter lens catching both characters at different depths in the frame.

Still, murder leaves a mark on these men which can’t simply be shaken off. It haunts them long after the deed is done with the guilty knowledge of what they will always be capable of – a heartless evil as easily recalled as horse riding or shooting targets. Unforgiven is not a new story for a man like Munny, so used to taking lives with no regard for what they truly “deserve”, but in Eastwood’s brilliantly cutting genre subversions, it emerges as a horrific reminder of what lies dormant beneath America’s prideful history, ready to rear its head again at any time.

Unforgiven is currently streaming on Binge, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Amazon Video.


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