The Western genre is replete with hard-asses who prefer to mow down their enemies and ask questions later. Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven dwells on the men who’ve lived long enough to ask the questions and arrive at some unsettling answers. For them, killing isn’t the only way, just the only way they’re any good at. If the Old West enjoyed a cinematic springtime in Monument Valley with John Wayne and John Ford, and a sweltering summer in the Dolomites with Sergio Leone and Eastwood, then the Wyoming vistas of this film represent the long, harsh winter. Every scene of this movie feels like an approaching cold front. Its characters move frigidly through the story, with the icy realization that some people simply can’t outrun who they are.
The film starts with brutality, as a couple of shit-kicking cowboys slash up a prostitute. An Old Testament solution is reached when the boys are forced to give up a few ponies to the barkeep as reparation. The women in the brothel, enraged by this leniency, pool their money to entice outlaws from all over to dispatch a little frontier justice. Word gets out to the Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett, looking like a bandit version of Dennis the Menace), a fresh-faced gunfighter who recruits two leathery ex-desperados (Eastwood and Morgan Freeman, the latter is absolute gold) to venture up to Big Whiskey, Wyoming and collect the bounty on the cowboys.
Unbeknownst to the trio, Big Whiskey is protected by a fearless, fascist constable named Little Bill (Gene Hackman, winning a well-deserved Oscar). Bill imposes peace and quiet by publicly whipping and beating anyone who dares break the law. Hackman’s character is the film’s masterstroke—a smiling despot who can rationalize his cruelty by saying it prevents further cruelty. If classic Westerns are built on clear delineation of right and wrong, Unforgiven punctures that mythology by moving its characters to a gray center. The outlaws have redeemable qualities–a moral code that obligates them to retaliate for the slashing of a woman—and the sheriff, the supposed symbol of order and honor, is shaded with sadism and a sociopathic thirst for personal glory. “Maybe they got it coming,” the Schofield Kid says. “Kid,” the Eastwood character ominously replies. “We’ve all got it coming.”
The grim violence of the film is abetted by its cinematography. Sweeping wide shots are awash with golden wheat fields and jagged mountains. Eastwood makes the frontier seem real and lived-in: It rains throughout the film; characters traipse through mud and filth; they shiver in the mountain breeze. The inevitable gunfights grow more claustrophobic as the film progresses. Rifles and shotgun ambushes give way to pistols in close quarters. By the end, the camera is uneasily close to the people being killed.
“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend,” says a quote from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Unforgiven seeks to strip the varnish from the legends, and show the good, bad, and ugly for what they really were. The Man with No Name could kill without thinking; this film supplies its characters with time to regret the things they’ve done and dread the things they must do. “It’s a hell of thing, killin’ a man,” the movie tells us. “You take away all he’s got, and everything he’s ever gonna have.” This is one of the greatest Westerns ever made.