Unforgiven (1992) (Spoilers)
William Munny used to be a killer.
That’s what we know when we meet him. He’s last fired a gun eleven years ago. He hasn’t even taken a drink for years, following the insistence of his wife. Though she’s been dead for three years, he has stayed sober, and even remained chaste, spending his time tending to his modest farm and raising his two children.
People remember the killer he was. His older self has lived on in stories and legends. Normally, stories told about memorable characters grow with each new telling. That process can take place without any supervision, or the characters in the story can nudge along the making of their legend. The Schofield Kid and English Bob both spin yarns about their own exploits in this second way, making them out to be slayers, stone-cold killers, certified badasses.
William hasn’t done that, and strangely, the proper sense of his fearsome abilities has diminished with time—the Schofield Kid, after all, thinks he killed two men in a spectacular feat of gunplay, when Ned remembers, correctly, that Munny took down three.
This is no small matter; until we get the details, stories are our best data. Legends grow up around exploits, after all, and there’s a new one in the West when Unforgiven begins, of how some bastard cowboy cut the living hell out of a prostitute, disfiguring and mutilating her in almost every way imaginable. The actual incident is the first thing we see in the film, the cowboy cutting her, and it sure looks bad. But when the Schofield Kid unfolds his description, it’s clearly an exaggeration, and it’s the first sense we have that we shouldn’t believe the stories we hear as this movie unfolds.
On one level, that sense of deconstruction is part of Unforgiven‘s larger project of calling the bluff of Western mythmaking and the Western genre in particular. This all stands in for how the stories people tell themselves can wind up trapping them. English Bob winds up turning down the offer to play the cold-hearted killer he claims to be, submitting to Little Bill’s humiliating, emasculating exposure of how little he’s earned his literary credibility. The Schofield Kid works himself into cold-blooded murder to honor the reputation he’s invented out of whole cloth and repeated, however dubiously, for the whole film.
William Munny hasn’t told himself a make-believe story, however, nor has he even talked up his actual deeds, which are in no need of no exaggeration. Instead he’s told himself a story for so long that he’s believed it, and lived it: he is no longer a killer. That is he who once was, in the past tense.
When he’s reminded of who he was, for what seems like the first time in a great long while, Munny insists, over and over, that he is no longer that man. But as the pragmatic justification of providing for his children falls into place, he takes steps to make use of his old skills without succumbing to his old ways. He declines drinks, and he turns down the chance to sleep with a beautiful young woman, out of loyalty to his wife and a sense that these are no longer the things for him. And when he fires his first shots, including one right through the gut of a man he’s seeking to kill, it seems as if he’s stayed true to his story. He’s doing something he’s capable of, something unsavory, to secure his children a better future; but in doing so he remains, through his motives and his clear head, himself. He kills without becoming, again, a killer.
The tension about whether William will revert to that old self, that lingering curiosity about whether the old, broken down man we see could once again become the wild-eyed man we hear spoken of in stories, plays with the audience’s expectations with the precision of a dagger. Part of that comes about in how the mission at hand, the contract killing of two dirtbag cowboys, has a distinct lack of grandeur. Declining the routes stories can take to set up evil men for a grand reckoning, past their opening sin the two men act without any real reason to condemn them. They follow what they’re told to do to make amends, and they make sincere apologies to the woman they’ve hurt and the many more women they’ve scared and dishonored. And the actual deaths of the two supposed bad guys are as unglamorous as possible. One dies, agonizingly, from a gut shot, pleading for water after being killed from a distance; the other is shot while sitting on a toilet. In neither case does the satisfaction we expect from a righting of wrongs accompany the execution of the violence we have been promised. They may have deserved to die—and that really is a stretch—but we aren’t made to feel that way.
It’s no accident, either, that before the killing of the two cowboys we see the woman whose cut face set the whole infernal course of events in motion. She’s scarred, yes, and it’s a very sad thing, but her wounds have healed better than you ever could have expected in the first minutes, when we saw her face covered by blood-soaked bandages. She’s so beautiful, still, that it has a real impact when William turns down her offer to sleep with him. It’s not pity for an unattractive woman, but rather something we read as a real commitment on his part to the memory of his wife. Yet the dignity inherent in this decision rests on an appeal that the woman, we’re told, no longer has. The reason why these men don’t really deserve death is staring right at him.
It still grates, nonetheless, that these dirtbags don’t receive what Little Bill hands out with little hesitation to English Bob and William: a dehabilitating beatdown at gunpoint. And when the recipients of the beatings’ crime was simply to carry a gun in a clearly dangerous frontier, it tells us a great deal about the weird hierarchy of Little Bill’s particular moral (and thus legal) code, and a good deal more of how credibly it’s delivered. Neither man takes the slightest effort at vengeance for their disgrace, and English Bob succumbs to the message behind it so thoroughly that he exits the movie entirely, even when he was the most energetic thing on screen. That the characters don’t seem to think this necessarily wrong only further muddies the water, making it clear that Little Bill may have some peculiar views, but his rule isn’t so illegitimate as to justify ending him on principle. There’s no problem defying him, though, at least for the audience’s sense of right and wrong, and so William, Ned and the Schofield Kid dispatch the two cowboys after they’re received, from Little Bill, their due warning.
When Sheriff Bill whips Ned to death in response, well, that’s about as horrible a crime as I could ever imagine. A government employee torturing a person to death in an interrogation. It’s the petty exercise of an illegitimate authority, it’s sadism, it’s cruelty, and it’s wrong. We have right there the great, unambiguous sin in need of righting. Yet as much as Ned is a sacrificial victim, as much as any audience is biologically obligated to feel anger at someone who has harmed Morgan Freeman, we don’t see his final death. We don’t get a sense of the real depths of his suffering. We get the gruesome spectacle of the display of his dead body, but that’s not what would most capably bring the audience to bloodlust. And at the very moment that William has heard of Ned’s death, when it’s clear that he will be meting out justice, the Schofield Kid, a young, likable, clearly good-hearted character, decides he’s out of the killing business for good.
Unforgiven has a great many intentions, but leading us on to some unambiguous, triumphant revenge isn’t one of them. What we see is sufficient to rouse William but not sufficient to turn his personal cause into a collective banner the viewer can rally behind. Yet something has had to give, this whole time. Unforgiven very adeptly understands that what the audience wants is pure, righteous vengeance… and finally, with most of the movie over, the initial task entirely done with, the vengeance for the first wrong we see carried out, William can get to the spectacle. At that point, though, you could fool yourself into not realizing that Unforgiven is a story of justice where the crime and the punishment can’t ever seem to match up in a satisfying way.
The film can lure you in during the moment, however, can bring you along despite the clearly grim intentions, because the story seems familiar enough that there are expectations from the viewer that the movie will fulfill certain responsibilities. In that sense Sean Witzke is right that “the catharsis of William Munney’s horrifying rampage at the end of the film is built to make you feel uncomfortable but also its badly, badly needed by the audience.” Yet right from the beginning of the final scenes, when William announces himself with a shotgun blast to an unarmed man’s chest, Unforgiven is still about its business of making the neat and tidy stories we tell ourselves and never tire of hearing as grim, uncooperative and unsettling as it can.
Unforgiven accomplishes some very specific things as a Western, and as a film. And this course it takes, this narrative of the narrative, can obscure how richly and meticulously the film takes a random act of violence and spins out of it the deaths of nine men. There’s worlds here, so many valuable things being said about violence and power and justice and blowback and everything else worth thinking about and which the Western is so capably primed to introduce.
Yet at root Unforgiven is about the stories we tell ourselves, and when William has rode away from the saloon filled with fresh new dead bodies, the last lie we’ve heard is revealed: that William used to be a bad man. After Little Bill recognizes him as the outlaw of Western legend, after he throws out that William has “killed women and children,” and William admits it, grimly but without embarrassment, it’s clear that we haven’t even known our hero very well this whole time. And despite what we were told, we didn’t know the old William Munny, either. The man on screen, every Clint Eastwood character condensed into God’s own wrath, seems to have been the real William all along, yet he isn’t someone we recognize or have even heard accurately described.
Even there, Unforgiven is in the business of complication, because we know what we saw and learned earlier in the movie. To believe that the William of the first scenes was a fraud isn’t tenable. The answer seems closer to the strange idea that William Munny used to be a bad man, then was a good man, and then became a bad man again. The fundamental disconnect between the aspects of the character we see, the way they could cohere but never quite fully, is one more case of a character in a story that doesn’t quite match either the telling or the reality, the right notes in the wrong chord, the right words in the wrong chapter.
In a lesser movie this would be a sign of a muddle, but this accomplished film has something far more honest and uncomfortable to say: the dark parts of you never go away. The difficult aspect is that, if they’re truly worth discarding, if they’re pernicious enough to merit your rejection of them, then they also have embedded within them something truly worth reckoning with, an aspect of not inconsiderable achievement. And what William pulls off in the final act is stunning; he takes out five armed men with a single round of shots from his pistol. It’s a feat beyond imagining, the stone-cold, bad-assed stuff of Western legend. And it’s only possible because this old, broken man lets loose the parts of himself that are capable of the most competent and most terrible action.
And of course, when he unleashes this, he’s right back to downing gulps of alcohol at the bar, talking in a stylized, menacing idiom he was previously above, not even fully conscious of the death he’s meting out. He’s himself again, but different, and it’s unsettling because he’s every part of ourselves that we want nothing more to do with and will never, for that reason, ever be able to leave behind.
Unforgiven has a very perceptive grasp on the ways in which you’re tethered to how you carry yourself, to the story you’ve narrated or let be narrated about you. And there are no good options, the film says. You can keep being the worst parts of yourself. You can leave them behind, and become lesser. You can sequester and segregate it, holding it in reserve. Or you can try the dangerous game of recontextualizing those dark parts of yourself as an aspect of a new you that you can accept.
That way can lead to salvation, to majesty. Yet at the same time those choices can and will lead bad places in any hands. If the film has one persistent thing to remind us of, it’s that you should question what you can and can’t believe from the characters you meet and the stories you hear. Because trying to right the past can reverberate in some very unexpected ways, and that doesn’t just go for trying to right a not-righted wrong. It goes the same for souls.
Because William Munny used to be a killer, and the truth of it is, for that reason, he always will be.