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Directed by Clint Eastwood, Unforgiven is the final chapter in the actor’s long storied career in Westerns, and a parable of the genre itself, at least at the time, a swan song for the once glory days now ending in sunset. The story centers on Munny, older, softer, less skilled than he once was, a widower trying to be a pig farmer and failing at every turn. He lives with and is raising his boy and daughter in a single room shack out in the open plains, a single decrepit tree looming over the grave of his wife. Visited by a young showboat of a man on horseback, he learns of a thousand dollar reward for the murder of two allegedly notoriously vicious cowpokes who nearly butchered some whores. Munny at first refuses the “Schofield Kid” (Jaimz Woolvett), but desperate for money, has a change of heart and rides off after him, stopping first at an old friend’s named Ned (Morgan Freeman), himself a former gunfighter. The three set out to collect the money but of course, what awaits them is man with his own dark past, Little Bill (Hackman). The journey that finally brings them all together is a thrilling, frightful one that challenges us to consider the heroic versus villain roles. Are we to think Munny is the good guy simply because he is played by Eastwood and the camera follows him most? There is darkness in everyone in this harrowing story, expertly directed by Eastwood, who is patient and careful, refusing to make this an action movie even when convention says it should.
That Moment: Who we are and what we do when called upon to act are what drives the characters, with Munny a killer, a man ravaged by time and the coldness of his past, unable to let go the shroud of evil that lingers about him. Drawn into the fold once more by the young Schofield Kid, he sees himself in the upstart gunslinger. Once the pair, along with Ned, reach the town, they are met by Bill who savagely beats Munny, though in a cave out of town, the women paying the bounty, nurse him back. The three men learn where the first cowboy is hiding and ambush him and his gang, killing him from a perched position. Ned, however, has lost the taste for the game and rides off, washing his hands of the ordeal, while Munny, feeling the same, feels committed to it for the money and stays with The Schofield Kid. The two track down the second cowboy and The Kid, who has poor eyesight, is given the chance to make the kill. He surprises the cowboy in a wooden outhouse and guns him down, shooting him in the chest. Afterward, on the outskirts of town, as the two await word from the women, The Kid collapses by a tree and reveals that this was actually his first kill, and while he attempts to give the story some bravado, is utterly torn apart by his murderous actions, unable to grasp how he’s stolen the last breathe of man he never knew. Munny listens and when the boy tries to pacify himself by claiming the man had it coming, Munny counters that we all have it coming.
Why it Matters: The Kid is evocative of the film’s message, his nearsightedness a symbol of the shortsighted quest that is revenge, the youth and inexperience, the childish motivations that inspire it. The lessons learned by the boy are brutal, and it will crack a man open and bear him to witness his own nature, or harden him and turn him stone cold. Munny sees the boy as himself, recalling perhaps a similar time in his life when his first kill came back to haunt. He has no judgment for his youthful partner, for he knows that burden is personal and one only the boy can answer for on his own. There is a reason the kid looks so much like Munny, for on this last ride, Munny must face what brought him here in the first place, the deeds cast when he was young, a past that has returned because it is the only thing he knows. The Kid is him in every respect, and that critical moment when the first kill forced him to make a choice, he went dark. The Kid of course chooses peace and even gives Munny his prized pistol, telling the older man he isn’t like him. Munny accepts the boy’s decision, and assures him that he won’t kill him, even telling him he’s the only friend he’s got, a nod perhaps to the shallow light of goodness that remains burning, however insignificantly, within him. What’s more is the tree in which the boy sits and leans against, a reminder of the lone tree we see at the start, where in silhouette, we see Munny digging a hole for his lost wife, and here too, the shadow of a himself he has lost, the boy who could have been, the man that should have made this same choice, and how now, older, scared, ruined by his real choice, cannot be forgiven.
David Webb Peoples
Clint Eastwood, Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman