The Oscars Project: Movie #8

(Explanation of The Oscars Project found here. And need I say it? This post contains SPOILERS.)

From 1992: Unforgiven

One of the "50 Best Guy Movies of All Time," Unforgiven is a western unlike any other. William Munny (Clint Eastwood) is a formerly wild gunslinger who has left his past behind as the result of the influence of his wife, raising a family, the subsequent loss of his wife (which already has transpired as the movie begins), and just the plain passage of time. Growing older and having a different perspective on life.

Munny is lured back into his old ways when his farm begins to suffer and he hears news of a bounty offered to whoever bumps off the two cowboys responsible for assaulting a, um, "good time lady" in a nearby town. (Note: I found it interesting that Cinematherapy did not comment on the sisterhood of the uh, "billiards ladies" who pool their earnings to offer the money to get justice for one of their own.) Anyway, Munny calls upon fellow "retired" gunslinger Ned (Morgan Freeman) and they catch up with the eager young man known as the Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett) who had brought the news in an attempt to bring Munny out of retirement.

As they hunt down their targets, Munny struggles with his commitment to his late wife--that he had left those ways behind. One very important thing that haunts him is that he hardly remembers all his previous murders; he had been drunk all the time back then. Being sober opens up a whole new perspective on what he must do: Kill. Not just kill, but kill and feel nothing.

It was interesting to see that the compassion his wife brought out in him colors his response to events to which he would have responded differently in the past:

1. The call for vengeance on the cowboys who hurt a
woman (regardless of the fact of what she is--how little regard everyone else has for her). I doubt he would have paid that much attention to something like that in the past, except strictly for the money. I really got the sense that he saw her as more than a disfigured lady of the evening who was told she'd have to wear a veil before any man would take advantage of her services. They have a poignant scene together when she is tending to him as he is recovering from a fever.

2. Dealing with the Schofield Kid. It becomes apparent that the Kid can't see very far, and is a horrible shot. Munny coaches him, and gives him chances that are not practical but rather kind.

3. The offing of the first cowboy. After the Kid botches the shot and hits the cowboy's horse, Munny has to finish the job. It's his first shot in years, and with a strange rifle, so the fatal wound renders a slow death. The dying cowboy is calling for a drink of water. . . Munny promises the cowboy's group there will be no more shots, and demands the man is brought some water as he dies.

In the end, it seems that acting with compassion is too much to bear--he can endure the things that are occurring as they would have in his former life, in his new life. He tries to impart the facts of, well,
death to the Kid after having given the Kid the opportunity to shoot the second cowboy. But there seems to be an unmistakable tone that they both acknowledge that this is the taking of a life. The real catalyst for his reversion to his former character is what happens to his friend Ned, who parts ways after the first killing but gets caught by the hypocritical sheriff "Little Bill" Daggett (Gene Hackman) who uses violence to keep the peace in town. Little Bill tortures Ned for information, then kills him and props up his corpse in front of the saloon, as a warning to others seeking the bounty.

He hadn't drunk whiskey in years--even had refused it while coming down with the fever--but he embraces it in order to finish the job and deal the justice he believes he must. He dispatches Little Bill and entourage responsible for what happened to Ned in what I only can assume was a masterful wielding of his gun. . . because I watched it through my fingers.

Then Munny, we are told through some words on the screen, packed up the kids and was never heard from again. He left the property where his wife was buried. I find that significant.

Had he left out of guilt or shame over the fact that he could not "eliminate the bad guys without becoming one himself" (Peske & West, 42)? I don't think we can know.

The bottom line: For me, this was the "sensitive new age guy" (remember that from the '90s?) version of a Western. A gunman who not only thinks but feels. Not necessarily a bad thing, because it makes for a complex film, and ultimately an award winner--Oscars for Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Hackman), and Best Director (Eastwood).

Next up: Schindler's List


Cullen said…
This was such an amazing movie. It really did represent a quantum shift in the way a lot of people looked at Westerns. It's not my favorite - High Plains Drifter is the best! - but it's way up there.
Dave E. said…
I can see the "sensitive new age guy" label, but maybe it's more of an explicit thing with Unforgiven. There are plenty of old westerns, including those starring Eastwood, where the complexities and the moral anguish are there.

And no disrespect to Cullen, but the best western ever was "Once Upon a Time in the West."
Mr. Bingley said…
The best western was "Blazing Saddles."
Kate P said…
Bingley's got it!!!

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