A violent movie about the old west
|To many very intelligent people the movie "Unforgiven" must look like a pointless and violent exercise in nihilism, with little in it that is worth watching. A lot of people probably watched it and said, "Well, the critics liked it ... " So, we have to ask: "Is there anything in this movie that makes it worth watching?" I have to answer, "Yes, there is." There is no question that this is a violent movie. It is a movie about violence. It is about the mechanics of violence in the real world, how it affects the people who engage in it. |
The movie begins in a brothel in the Old West. A prostitute provokes a young cowboy into a terrible rage by giggling at the size of his penis. The cowboy yells for his companion to hold the prostitute while he slashes her face with a large knife. He only stops when the owner of the whorehouse sticks a gun to his head. The sheriff comes, and at first says the unruly cowboys should be whipped with a bull whip. Then the owner of the brothel produces a sheet of paper he says is a "contract" for an "investment of capital". He says he paid for the injured prostitute to be brought to Big Whiskey, and because the cowboy has ruined his "investment of capital", he should get compensated for his loss. The sheriff changes his mind and says one cowboy should give four horses to the mutilated prostitute, and the other cowboy should give her two. They will undoubtedly stay in the women's possession for about a minute. This is a wholly unsatisfactory arrangement for the head prostitute, and she gets all the prostitutes to pool their money so they can hire someone to kill the two cowboys.
Then the movie switches to a scene of William Munny clumsily trying to work the pigs on his small pig farm with his two kids, a boy and a girl. It is a muddy, stinking affair. His pigs are getting sick. A young man rides up to his farm, and says to William Munny, "You don't look like no rootin' tootin' cold blooded assassin." William Munny tells the kid that he has given that life up, "due to the influence of his sweet ex-wife". The young man says his nickname is "the Schofield Kid". He tells William that he is going after a reward of a thousand dollars for killing two young cowboys who cut up the face of a prostitute. He invites William to come along and split the reward. William declines the offer and sends the Schofield Kid on his way. But a couple more of his pigs get sick, and the temptation of the money is too great for William. It has been many years since William has fired a gun aimed at another man. He is hopelessly ill prepared to go on a killing. Before he takes off to chase after the reward William goes to get his old partner, Ned, who is also leading a placid life on a farm. With a little convincing, helped by the presence of a substantial reward, Eastwood convinces Ned to come with him.
There are a few comments in this movie that are kind of humorous. At the beginning of the movie, when "William Munny" (Clint Eastwood) keeps missing every time he shoots at a can with his pistol, his young daughter innocently asks, "Did pa used to kill folks?" The kicker is that she is not expressing dismay. She is expressing disbelief. She is saying "I don't think that guy is physically capable of hurting a butterfly." When sheriff "Little" Bill Dagget is talking about gunfighters he says, "They're men of no character, not even bad character." All while he is giving his accounts of all the cowardly gunmen he has faced. There is another telling comment when one of the sheriff's deputies says about the sheriff, "He might be tough, but he is the worst carpenter."
There are three characters in this movie who do a good job of showing how ridiculous people can look when they try to romanticize violence. The first is "The Schofield Kid". He is a nervous little liar who is desperate to prove that he is a real killer. Another is "English Bob", who is a dashing character, determined to prove the superiority of the English and waltz away with a thousand dollars. When he rides into town on a stage coach he misses a sign that says there are no guns allowed in the town of Big Whiskey. When he walks out of the barber's office he meets five of the sheriff's deputies and the sheriff himself, all armed. Sheriff Dagget does a deft job of disarming English Bob and then beats the daylights out of him. Like all the scenes of violence in this movie, this scene is hard to watch, and it doesn't appeal to our sense of fair play. It is brutal and shocking. The third ridiculous character in this movie is a writer who has attached himself to English Bob because he wants to write Bob's biography. Just hearing a few sentences of what he has written reveals it for the garbage it is. In his book the gunmen are dashing and intent on protecting the honor of women. He is a misguided twerp, but there are worse people in this movie.
When William Munny, Ned, and the Schofield Kid catch up with the first cowboy they are supposed to kill the movie gets a little too real. The three gunmen have ambushed the cowboy and his gang out in the rocks. They shoot the horse of the cowboy they want to kill, and the horse falls over, breaking the cowboy's leg and pinning the cowboy beneath him. The cowboy is trying to get his leg from under the horse and to get to the cover of the rocks. This is the most disturbing scene in the movie. Clint Eastwood and Ned are trying to kill the cowboy with a Spencer Rifle before he can reach safety. These two old and reformed gunfighters agonize over making this kill. Ned cannot bring himself to shoot the kid, so he gives the rifle to Eastwood, who manages to kill the young cowboy. This kind of violence is meant to be disturbing. It is the whole point of the movie - that in real life violence is not rollicking fun. It is dark and disturbing.
The worst character of the movie is Sheriff "Little" Bill Dagget. He is a truly scary man. He revels in his license to commit violence. His career of keeping the bad guys out of town has made him this way, and he seems to enjoy it. The scene where the sheriff tells "Ned" what he is going to do to him before he kills him shows the darkness in the man's soul. It too is hard to watch.
When he has English Bob's biographer in jail the Sheriff gives his philosophy of violence and regales the writer with his tales of his experiences as a gunfighter. What he depicts is far different from the tales of the Wild West we get on television. He tells of drunken men with no self respect and no morals, the farthest thing from heroes there could be. The sheriff paints a picture of drunken babies who use violence to get their toys. There is nothing poetic about these men. They are slime. The sheriff says that the most important thing in a gunfight is a cool head. It is being calm under pressure. He loads a gun and gives it to the biographer? Then he tells the biographer to shoot him. Of course, the writer does not do it, and the Sheriff gloats. But then the writer backs up and threatens to give the gun to English Bob. The Sheriff tells him to go ahead. English Bob stands there with the loaded gun almost in his reach, and it looks like he just might take it, but then he backs down. The sheriff tells English Bob that he was right not to take the gun, because he would have killed Bob if he had.
In the final scene of the movie it reverts to the only scene of Hollywood style violence we see in the movie. In this scene William Munny single handedly outshoots five armed men, and he kills Sheriff Dagget. Then he shouts a dire threat to the townspeople to let him out of town. It is a credible threat, and William Munny does get out of town, but at what price to his soul, and at what price to the townspeople who let him go? The scene outside the bar is the real scene, and the scene inside the bar, where William single handedly outshoots five armed men, is the only appearance of Hollywood style, fantasy violence.