Thursday, May 19, 2005
  film geeks Required Viewing: Unforgiven

It's a hell of a thing, killin' a man. You take away all he's got and all he's ever gonna have. - Will Munny

Is violence ever necessary?

What comes into your mind when you read those words? There are as many possible answers as there are people in the world. A pure pacifist might reject violence outright. Someone who is “hawkish” on national and personal security might say that yes, sometimes violence is necessary. He or she might even feel that it’s one of life’s givens. Others might respond with a simple, sad nod… and still others might find the question too complex to answer.

Unforgiven is about that question, the ways in which a person can answer it, and the ways in which violence and our response to it shape our lives. It’s one of the smartest, most challenging movies I’ve ever seen, and the pinnacle of Clint Eastwood’s career as an actor and a director. Forget the hype for the overtly political, heavy-handed Million Dollar Baby. Forget what you’ve heard about the subtle but oblique Mystic River. Eastwood’s finest work is in the 131 minutes of Unforgiven. This is a movie with as much insight into and passion about the human condition as any… and there are very few films that are its equal.

The story, when briefly summed up, sounds simple, even common to the western genre. What’s uncommon about Unforgiven, in terms of westerns or anything else, is the movie’s scope. Unforgiven could have been set in modern New York or LA, rural West Virginia in the 1950’s, Victorian England, or the middle east… it’s setting doesn’t matter. What it has to say about people and our behavior is universal. Shakespeare never wrote a more moving tragedy than Unforgiven. Kafka never examined humanity with more clarity. This film is as good as art can get.

Beyond that, it’s pretty much perfect purely in terms of film. The cinematography is wonderful, the dialogue is natural and vivid, and the story unfolds with uncommon honesty. It’s the characters, however, that make Unforgiven special. There isn’t a stereotype or a one-dimensional contrivance in the bunch. The things they say and do, even when they surprise or shock you, have an undeniable weight and reality. You believe every word, every action, and every motivation. Unforgiven is a movie about people, first and foremost. The genre isn’t only secondary, it’s irrelevant.

The Story

In 1880, in the small, dirty town of Big Whisky, Nebraska, Sheriff Bill Daggett is the law. He rules the town absolutely, and by his own moral code. No firearms are permitted in Big Whisky, except for those carried by the sheriff and his deputies. No violence is allowed, and when it happens, “Little” Bill Daggett deals with it according to his own code. One night, two ranch hands come into town looking for fun with the local prostitutes. When one of them women insults one of the ranch hands, he goes into a rage, beats her, and cuts her severely. The prostitutes demand vengeance from the sheriff, who orders that the two ranch hands pay restitution (in the form of horses) to the saloon owner who serves as a pimp for the women. The prostitutes aren’t satisfied by this, and save $1,000 of their own money to put a price on the heads of the ranch hands. Word gets out that a bounty will be paid to anyone who kills the two men. As killers of different backgrounds and levels of experience come to Big Whisky, a chain of events unfolds that scars the lives of everyone.

The Principle Characters

Delilah and Strawberry AliceStrawberry Alice and Delilah Fitzgerald.
Strawberry Alice is the oldest and wisest of the prostitutes, and something of a matriarch to the other women. As played by Francis Fisher, Alice is compelling and complex. She’s a prostitute, but she has a limit to how much of her self is for sale. An assault on one of her girls wakens a rage in her that’s been there for years. Alice wants revenge, not just against the men responsible for the assault, but against every man who’s ever wronged her. Delilah, the prostitute who suffered the attack, is more than just a device for the story. She’s a woman with believable reactions to the things that take place around her and happen to her. Delilah is frustrated by what’s happened to her, but doesn’t want further violence to take place in her name. Nonetheless, she’s powerless to stop the things that Alice has set in motion. Anna Levine plays Delilah with a quiet intensity, turning her into so much more than typical hooker with a heart of gold.

Little Bill DaggettSheriff “Little” Bill Daggett.
This is the best performance of Gene Hackman’s career. It’s impossible to pigeonhole this character. Little Bill lives by a strict moral code, but sees himself as the sole arbitrator of right and wrong. His men respect him, but he regards them as useful idiots, unworthy of the lessons he believes himself capable of teaching. When a journalist from back east comes to Big Whisky, eager to learn and write about the ways of the west, Little Bill thinks he’s finally found the student he’s always wanted. But, the contrast between his lectures to the journalist and his actual methods of law enforcement reveal a deeply conflicted soul. Bill is oblivious to his own inner conflicts, and with his last lines in the film, we see a man just beginning to understand the consequences of the life he’s led, yet unable to let go of the resentment that got him where he is. Bill is a terribly complex character, with more conflicting beliefs and ideas than any ever filmed. A lesser actor would have surely made a mess of this role. Hackman, however, clearly understands Little Bill. His performance is amazing, and he makes the viewer believe that this man would, in fact, behave exactly as he does throughout the film. As Little Bill Daggett, Gene Hackman steals every scene he is in.

Will MunnyWill Munny.
Clint Eastwood is, of course, the iconic face of the modern western. However, in Unforgiven, he plays a character sharply different from the Preacher in Pale Rider, the cavalier drifter in The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, and every other role he’s played. In the movie’s opening text scroll, we learn the back story of William Munny. There’s only one way to describe the life lead by the young Will Munny: he was a terrorist. A drunk with no regard for human life, Will Munny was glad to kill for money, and sometimes killed just for fun. As the events in Unforgiven begin, we find Munny a broken, elderly, and deeply religious man. His religion, however, is his devotion to his late wife, who he says saved him from the wickedness of his past ways. In the present day of Unforgiven, Will Munny is no longer a danger to anyone. He’s a poor pig farmer, unable to provide adequately for his children or to forgive himself for his past sins. When he hears about the $1,000 bounty in Big Whisky, he believes that collecting it is the only option he has to rescue his children from a terrible existence. However, elderly Will Munny hasn’t even held a gun in years. Reluctantly, he sets out for Big Whisky to kill the ranch hands and claim the reward.

In the story of Will Munny, Unforgiven is inherently a tale about relapse and regret. As he travels to Big Whisky, Munny gets further and further away from the sacraments of his devotion to his late wife; his children and her grave. On the road, the devout Will Munny gives way, slowly but clearly, to the terrorist he once was. Eastwood’s performance is uncommonly subtle and powerful. This isn’t, after all, a simple tale of a man reverting to evil past behavior. The changes that Will Munny has made are real, even when they are at odds with what he must become in order to do what he’s set out to do. His inner conflict is like a storm inside of him. This is a killer who can’t stand to see his victim suffer, even for want of a drink of water. This is an assassin who won’t raise a hand to protect himself in a fist fight… not because he doesn’t believe in violence, but because he hates himself and needs to be punished. Will Munny is the personification of regret. As his past catches up with him, the toll on his body and mind literally nearly kills him.

A shocking turn of events in Big Whisky lead Munny to an act of brutal, premeditated violence. In terms of action, this event is the movie’s climax. For Will Munny, however, the violence is only the inevitable result of his character’s personal breaking point. In a scene prior to the violent climax, we see Will Munny standing under a dead, desolate tree outside of town, deciding what he will do about what has happened, and fully aware of the consequences of his actions. Unlike the young Will Munny who killed out of disregard for life, this is an older, wiser Will Munny, and he understands that what he’s decided to do will cost him his very soul. The scene is an amazing piece of acting on Eastwood’s part, and can only be appreciated with subsequent viewings. In that scene, we see a man decide to trade salvation for revenge. I can’t think of any scene in any movie with more honest or profound spiritual implications.

English BobEnglish Bob.
Sir Richard Harris, as English Bob, is a dapper killer for hire, a man who enjoys taking life. But, like Munny and Little Bill, Bob has his own individual moral code. Bob lives by a caste system, and believes that the value of a person’s life is determined by their position in the world. Immigrants and uneducated cattlemen are fine for killing. So are presidents, who are merely commoners elected by the rabble. But nobility; dukes, queens, and kings, shouldn’t be killed. They are, after all, a better class of people. To kill them would be uncivilized. To Bob, the problem with America is that so many Americans are simply uncivilized. They have no respect for royalty. Bob, after all, thinks of himself as something of a royal. He is, in his mind, “The Duke Of Death.”

Bob demonstrates his marksmanship with a superior performance in a pheasant shooting contest… but we soon learn that his taste for killing is directly proportional to his ability to keep his hands clean. Shooting from afar is fine. Tangling up close and personal, however, is to be avoided. After a bloody altercation with Little Bill, Bob ends up dirty, disheveled, and robbed of his dignity. It’s then that we see the mad dog in the Englishman. In his last scene in the film, spouting vulgarities through a mouth full of broken teeth, English Bob reveals his ideas about class to be a lot like his clothing: Impressive and ornate, but impractical and meaningless.

English Bob must have been a fun role for Sir Richard. It’s the smallest of the principle roles, but Harris plays it to the bone, making Bob in turns disgusting, sympathetic, vile and funny. I can’t imagine the movie without him… not just for the comic relief that he brings the picture, but because of the menacing evil boiling just beneath the Englishman’s skin. English Bob is a coiled snake. Small, weak, but amazingly deadly.

W.W. BeauchampW.W. Beauchamp.
As writer W.W. Beauchamp, Saul Rubinek finds humor in his character, too… this is, after all, a slick urbanite who literally pees his pants the first time a gun is pointed at him. That scene is more than humorous, though… and it’s implications are undeniable once we realize that Mr. Beauchamp is the audience’s representative in the movie. A published author in a land where most people believe that a writer must simply write “letters and such,” Beauchamp is the ultimate outsider. He came west looking for romantic stories about gritty gunslingers and duels at dawn over the honor of women. Instead, he found Big Whisky, a town where bullets aren’t the only way to die, and where men worry that getting shot in the winter time would hurt more than getting shot in the summer time because of the temperature. The education of W.W. Beauchamp is, by extension, the education of the audience. We learn, as he learns, that violence isn’t honorable or romantic. It’s simply itself. What really goes on in the heart of a killer isn’t fit for fictionalizing.

The Scholfield KidThe Schofield Kid.
If Unforgiven had been set in the modern day, James Woolvett’s character, The Scholfield Kid, is the kind of kid that you might worry is in school with your own children. Obsessed with violence and determined to make a name for himself, the Kid is a lot like every smartass suburban white kid with a loud car stereo and the latest 50 Cent CD. He calls himself a killer, but he can hardly see to aim a gun. He wants to be a bad man, but reveals himself to be an immature boy every time he opens his mouth. Woolvett delivers a remarkable performance, elevating the Kid beyond the usual Gunslinger-Wannabe character in many westerns. The Scholfield Kid isn’t just a smartass with a gun and a lot to learn. He’s a young man at a crucial crossroads in his life, intent on defying his own true nature and becoming someone he thinks has a better chance of survival in a cruel world. It’s hard not to feel for him as the story progresses and the reality of violence grabs him. He is, after all, just a kid.

James Woolvett is outstanding in this role, and I was sure after I saw the movie that he’d be everywhere in movies for the rest of the 90’s. It hasn’t happened that way, instead, he's had small parts in small movies. Which is fine, but I figured he'd be a big star, and he's not. I still can’t figure out why.

Ned LoganNed Logan.
Have you ever watched a film and found yourself complementing an actor by saying that they gave a “Morgan Freeman Caliber Performance?” In Unforgiven, Freeman demonstrates the talent that justifies that template. Ned Logan, like William Munny, is a reformed gunman who has grown tame in his old age. Unlike Munny, though, Ned really has put the past behind him. He isn’t haunted about it, he has an almost clinical detachment from it, and we have no trouble believing him when he says “I ain’t like that no more.” When events in Big Whisky threaten to draw him back to his old way of life, Ned finds himself not only unwilling, but actually incapable, of committing murder. Whatever was once inside of him that made him disregard human life is dead now. When he encounters violence for the first time in God knows how many years, Ned is horrified. Freeman’s performance is incredible. Without speaking a word, he shows us Ned’s horror; not only at the violence he’s seen, but at his memories of the kind of man he used to be. We believe him, and share his shock and fear. Freeman’s performance is crucial to this movie, it simply wouldn’t work without him. Ned is the anchor of this film, and his fate requires an emotional response from the viewer. Nobody can make movie viewers emote like Morgan Freeman, and he uses every principle in his canon to great effect in Unforgiven.

Unforgiven works in every way that a movie can work. The direction is perfect. We can almost feel the rain and smell the must and share the physical pain. Besides directing and staring in Unforgiven, Eastwood also wrote the movie’s seamless, stark, and beautiful score. The score adds a tapestry to the movie that completes it as a work, making it not only the best western ever made, but one of the most important films in the history of cinema.

Is violence ever necessary?

How you answer that question before you see Unforgiven might be different from how you answer it afterwards. Or, you might be even more committed to your initial feelings on the matter. I’m certain, though, that the movie delivers it’s message with clarity and authority. It doesn’t matter what you think about violence now. What matters is what you’ll learn about yourself if you ever really encounter violence.

It’s better not to know.

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