I won’t buck the trend here. Many people think this is Eastwood’s masterpiece and I don’t disagree. This is quite something for a director in his 60’s. And let’s also bear in mind that this was his last western, coming after the Spaghetti Western Trilogy, not to mention the films he also directed (High Plains Drifter, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Pale Rider… not to mention other films like Joe Kidd, Two Mules For Sister Sara, Paint Your Wagon oh and a little Television show called Rawhide that ran for about seven years).
This tale finds widower, William Munny (Eastwood) drawn into a manhunt for two mean who abused a working prostitute only to be all but let off by the law thanks to law man Little Bill (Gene Hackman). Munny enlists the help of his friend Ned (Morgan Freeman) and heads off on the job along with the young scallywag, The Schofield Kid, who offered the work to him.
That’s a fairly straightforward story right? Yes indeed. But what lies under the surface is what makes this gem worth returning to on a regular basis. Before I forget though let me just point out how beautiful this film looks. It’s probably Eastwood’s best looking film (and he has many great looking films under his belt). If you have Hi-Definition capability at home I suggest you get this if you don’t have it already on Blu-ray (or whatever the current Hi-Def trend is at the time you read this). Eastwood has always enjoyed playing with shadows, and sometimes his films cause you to squint to make out what he is up to in certain shots. He masters the technique here, but makes each shot look just stunning.
Back to the story – Munny, we find out has a violent history. So bad that even his, now deceased, wife was warned off him (yet we learn that she was the one that managed to help him change his ways). Munny is thoroughly ashamed of his past – and the few stories we hear make your skin crawl about how vile a man he used to be. But now he is coming off as a broken old man – hesitant to commit any acts of violence and it seems more like his two partners are going to be doing most of the leg work on this manhunt.
In the meantime we follow English Bob (Richard Harris) and his writer sidekick Beauchamp (Saul Rubinek) as they arrive in town. Harris shines in the role which is essentially an extended cameo. His purpose is the help us get to better understand Little Bill. The scene where Little Bill has English Bob in jail and is consistently taunting him about his fabled past is great. But the tension in the scene is brought to a peak when he offers a gun to Beauchamp and gives him the chance to shoot so he can let Bob escape. What makes this moment all the more interesting is when he dares to offer the gun to Bob. Bill leaps on this moment and dares it to happen. Bob has a moment of temptation, but clearly sees that if he goes anywhere near the gun that he would get shot down in a heartbeat.
It’s a great exposé of Little Bill’s cruel nature (which of course we already have a good incline to in his treatment of the two men who cut up the whore, and his general attitude towards others). All of this prep work on the character comes into play when Munny is first confronted by him.
Munny is in very poor health, hunched over a table at the saloon. His two comrades have gone up to collect a bit of advance payment with the mob of prostitutes that have hired them to find justice. Munny remains at the table, coughing, miserable and being tempted by the drink (which he rejects with his quivering hand). Bill enters and confronts him (knowing that men are in town to hunt the two men) about carrying a weapon in town. Munny foolishly denies it, and as a result receives one hell of a beating from Bill and is rejected out onto the street where he is retrieved by his friends.
We then come to the shooting of the two men. The first, Ned is meant to take out – but he suddenly is overcome and can’t find the courage to shoot. This is the beginning of Munny’s change (or rather reversion in character). He takes up the rifle and fires of the fatal shot. But the scene does not end here. The wound he inflicts will kill the man, but he is left in agony for a while first, crying out for his friends. It’s so excruciating that even Munny calls out to the friends of the man to go to his aide and be with him. It’s probably right that this first kill be the hardest and be the one that really screws with our group of heroes, and particularly Munny who has been trying to avoid this type of life.
It’s at this point where Ned decides to take off back home as he can’t be a part of it anymore. This leaves our young “Kid” gunslinger to take out the second man. Which he does as the guy is on the crapper. It’s a cowardly kill, but we really never expected much else from this young buck so full of himself. It isn’t a surprise that he turns out to have never killed a man before. In fact it’s a film full of role reversals (Bob, the Kid, Ned and Munny all have major character turns. The only character who appears to remain true to their nature from start to finish is house-building Bill!).
It’s Munny’s response to the kid in this quiet scene where I think Eastwood delivers his strongest scene as an actor in his entire career. He talks about what it is to take a man’s life. The camera lingers as he awaits the approaching rider on a horse (delivering their reward). And it’s a very powerful moment and manages to sum up violence as an act pretty much to its core.
It is then to be followed by one of his most powerful climaxes as Munny then learns of the capture, torture and death of Ned. He sends the Kid away and now fully returned to his former self of the cold killer, heads into town to confront Ned’s assailants.
This is a scene that has been spoilt to hell since the film came out (Hell I even saw the first half of this climax on a film review show as the film was coming out???!). If you haven’t seen Unforgiven, but have seen clips – chances are you saw a clip from this final scene. Munny coolly walks into the saloon full of men, listening in to Little Bill and calmly points the shotgun in his hand at them.
This confrontation is one of cinema’s strongest, and it isn’t long until the action is over. But from the fact that he methodically takes out the owner of the bar first (for displaying Ned’s corpse outside) before turning his attention to Bill, and then literally taking every man out in the bar who pulls a gun is quite astonishing. It’s catapulted by the dialogue between Bill and Munny. Bill tries to get the moral high ground on Munny by making claim to what a vicious killer he was; to which Munny duly accepts his played out role in the world and then responds with acknowledgement of his status and then claim over Bill’s life next.
If I was to find flaw in this film, then ok there is a shot of two men in this gunfight falling backwards after getting shot (but sadly one guy reacts a bit too late as you clearly already see the gunshot in his belly before he reacts out of time – woops!).
Munny takes back to the rainy dark streets and then curses and threatens anyone listening that should any such atrocity happen again that he’d return to seek vengeance. We then return to his homestead in silhouette and end quietly as Munny has attempted to find final peace at home at the grave of his wife. It truly is as close to perfect a film as you will find and belongs at the top of Eastwood’s impressive filmpography.