These are questions Eastwood wants us to ask. Provoking us to ask them is one of the film’s most important tasks, and it doesn’t end with the introduction on the pig farm.
Riding up to meet William Munny is the Schofield Kid, nephew of one of Munny’s old gang and a would-be gunslinger himself, who has heard of a $1000 reward for the killing of two cowboys who attacked and mutilated a prostitute in the town of Big Whiskey, Wyoming. Once inside and out of earshot of Munny’s children, the Kid explains, “Uncle Pete says you was the meanest goddamn son of a bitch alive, and if I ever wanted a partner for a killin’, you were the worst one. Meaning the best.” He offers to split the thousand bucks with Munny if he will ride with him to Big Whiskey and help him kill those two cowboys.
Munny declines. “I ain’t like that no more, kid,” he says. His late wife cured him of drinking whiskey, which it seems was the cause of much of his youthful intemperance. Now he just wants to take care of his kids and be left alone. Disappointed, the Kid rides off. But the allure of that $1000 lingers, and Munny finds himself digging his old six-shooter out of a chest and setting up a can on a fencepost for target practice. This is an allusion to a similar scene in The Outlaw Josey Wales, another contender for the Definitive Eastwood Movie title. In Josey Wales, the Eastwood character shoots the can off the fence repeatedly, with no trouble at all. This is what we expect from him — the dead-shot, the western protagonist who never misses. There are rules to this sort of thing, you know. Unforgiven is about reminding us of those rules, then flagrantly ignoring them; Munny is unable to so much as graze the can, even though, as we’re shown in a wide shot that’s a little funny and a little sad, he’s not standing that far away. Seething, glaring at the can through his menacing Clint squint, Munny stomps back into the house. We remain outside, hear him inside rummaging around for something. His children have been standing on the porch, watching the target practice. Penny turns to her brother and asks innocently, “Did Pa used to kill folks?” Before Will Jr. can answer, their father returns carrying a shotgun, and with it blows the defiant can off the fence.
Notwithstanding his inability to hit the broad side of a barn, that money is just too good for Munny to pass up. He saddles up his horse (with great effort, falling on his ass more than once before finally successfully climbing aboard) and rides off to catch the Schofield Kid. On the way he stops to pick up his partner from the good old days, Ned Logan (he’d be Morgan Freeman). A share of a thousand bucks sounds good to Ned, too, but he doesn’t think it’ll be as easy as Munny makes it sound. “How long has it been since you fired a gun at a man, Will? Nine, ten years?” he asks.
But Munny isn’t about to let that stop him. He’s determined to find and kill those cowboys, and to collect his share of that reward. He just wants the money, he keeps insisting — for his children’s sake. When Ned or the Kid (whom they catch on the trail to Big Whiskey after a day or so) mentions the time Munny killed five men, or that drover he shot through the mouth, sending his teeth out the back of his head, Munny insists that he’s changed. “I ain’t like that no more, Ned!” he shouts at one point. “Just ‘cause we’re goin’ on this killin’, that don’t mean I’m goin’ back to the way I was.”
There is more to it than the money. Of course there is. When the Kid describes Munny as a “broken-down pig farmer” and tells him he sure don’t look like no meaner-than-hell damn killer, it stings. When Munny says to Ned, “I’m just a fella now. I ain’t no different than anyone else . . . no more,” the regret in his voice is hard to miss. He is ashamed of things he did, sure, but he also carries a kind of guilty pride about them. He wasn’t just a killer — he was the best.
Killing those cowboys and collecting the reward won’t be easy. Big Whiskey has a sheriff, Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman, who won an Oscar for this performance), a lawman just as infamous in his way as Will Munny. While Munny has tried to leave his violent side behind him, Daggett has parlayed his into a career. He even has a biographer, pulp novelist W.W. Beauchamp, who rides the train into town alongside old gunfighter English Bob and decides to stick around after Daggett brutally beats Bob and kicks him out of town for disobeying a local gun control ordinance. Beauchamp is another of Unforgiven’s vital components. He is a mythmaker. His dime novels about English Bob portrayed his subject as supernaturally heroic, a gallant defender of women’s virtue, and, like all great western heroes, a never-miss shot with a six-gun. It’s all bullshit, which Little Bill knows first-hand, acquainted as he is with the real English Bob. The more time he spends with him, the more Beauchamp realizes that Daggett is the sort of man he’s been searching for his entire career, a hero whose true life adventures need no writer’s embellishment.
While Munny, Ned and the Kid make their way into town, Daggett gives Beauchamp an education on real life in the old west. He corrects the record on one of Beauchamp’s novels, claiming to have witnessed a gunfight described between English Bob and a rival called Two-Gun Corcoran. It was not a matter of honor, as Beauchamp’s novel told it, but rather a drunken squabble over Corcoran sleeping with a French woman Bob was interested in. And Corcoran’s nickname didn’t come from his packing two pistols. Remember that old schoolyard rhyme that ends “one is for shooting, the other’s for fun”? There you have it.
By the time they make it into town, Munny is suffering with pneumonia, contracted riding through the rain. He staggers into Greeley’s saloon and sits shivering in a corner while Ned and the Kid go upstairs to meet the prostitutes offering the reward, and take themselves a few “advances” on the payment. Munny neglects to turn in his gun on his way into town, and Little Bill is called to Greeley’s to confront him. Daggett has already made an example of English Bob, and now he does the same to Munny, kicking him from one side of the bar to the other, declaring to everyone watching that this is what will happen to anyone who comes to town trying to collect on the $1000 bounty on those cowboys. Ned and the Kid pull their pants on, collect Munny and make a run for it. Daggett sends his deputies out to find them, while the three of them camp out in the mountains to wait on Munny to recover or die — Ned refuses to leave until one or the other.
Here again, our foreknowledge of Eastwood forces us to question what we’re seeing. “How can Gene Hackman kick the shit out of Clint Eastwood like that? I know he was Popeye Doyle, but Clint was Dirty Harry, for Christ’s sake!” Things get worse than that. Delirious, Munny tells Ned that he’s seen the angel of death, and a vision of his wife, her face all covered with worms. “Ned, don’t tell my kids,” he pleads to his friend, “none of the things I done.”
Munny is not the man he was — either within the world of this film, or in the larger context of Eastwood’s career. But there are those who wish he was. The Schofield Kid, the wronged prostitutes, sometimes even Ned seem to wish they had the old Will Munny along with them instead of this worn-out old fool. Eventually the pneumonia passes, Ned is captured and tortured by Daggett’s men after changing his mind about the killing and trying to ride home, and Munny asks the Kid for his first drink of whiskey in over a decade. He rides back into town with the Kid’s pistol, looking for Little Bill, with that notoriously vicious and intemperate disposition in its full flower.
The scene that follows is one of my favorite in all the movies. Munny enters Greeley’s, where he finds Daggett organizing another posse to round up him and the Kid. Daggett turns to face him, and after Munny shoots and kills Skinny, the owner of the saloon, they have the following exchange:
“You'd be William Munny out of Missouri; killer of women and children.”
“That's right. I’ve killed women and children. I’ve killed just about everything that walks or crawls at one time or another; and I’m here to kill you Little Bill for what you did to Ned.”
Think of how this scene turns the conventions of the western upside down. The sheriff trying to uphold the law is the villain. The man who rode into town to murder for money is the hero. And we see in the next few moments that Will Munny’s reputation as a killer is well-deserved. After disposing of Daggett’s men in short order, Munny stands over the wounded sheriff, the muzzle of his rifle trained on Daggett’s head. “I don’t deserve this,” Daggett protests. And, though we’ve seen what a brutal man he is, and though he has done some terrible things to our heroes in the last few minutes, I think he’s right. He doesn’t deserve this. He certainly shouldn’t be a policeman, but he doesn’t deserve to die.
Ah, but I’ll get no argument from Eastwood. “Deserve’s got nothing to do with it,” he says, looking eye-to-eye with Daggett down the barrel of that rifle. When Little Bill responds with a promise to see him in Hell, Munny doesn’t flinch. He replies simply, “Yeah,” . . . and pulls the trigger.
I call Unforgiven the ultimate Clint Eastwood movie because it’s not merely a movie with a clever twist on the old Eastwood type; it’s a movie about all the other Clint Eastwood movies. Will Munny is like those other iconic characters — he’s mean, impatient, world-weary and definitely not to be fucked with. But he’s different, too — he’s conscious of the wrong he’s done. He’s reformed, or tried to. He doesn’t want to be the fastest gun in town; he doesn’t want to be the guy everyone’s afraid of. He tries to be a good man, but then he finds he doesn’t quite want that, either. In the end, he has to go back to the only thing he’s ever been really good at. As he tells W.W. Beauchamp at Greeley’s after the climactic gunfight, when they are surrounded by the bodies of his enemies, “I’ve always been lucky when it comes to killin’ folks.”
The film ends with a shot of Munny standing in the distance, silhouetted against a gorgeous prairie sky, while another crawl informs us that he soon disappeared with the children and moved to California, where rumor has it he prospered as a seller of dry goods. Perhaps his reform took afterall. Then, fittingly, since this is almost certainly Eastwood’s final western as an actor or a director, the dark figure of Munny turns, starts back toward his little house, and fades away. No final ride into the sunset for him. Look at that sky; for William Munny the sun has gone down already.