Unforgiven (1992) is producer/director/star Clint Eastwood's own tribute to his legendary legacy in Sergio Leone's low-budget 'spaghetti' westerns, and a return to his most successful film genre - after seven years (following his Pale Rider (1985)). In this modern-day classic western shot on location (in Alberta, Canada and Sonora, California), Eastwood reprised his film origins - as a gritty and weathered Western character (e.g., The Man With No Name) and as his urbanized 'Dirty Harry' vigilante in Don Siegel's films - he even dedicated the film in the final credits to 'Sergio and Don,' his mentor directors.
Eastwood plays a weakened, once-violent but reformed gunfighter - and an aging pig farmer - in this serious, dark, film-noirish, violent tale of retribution that concludes with a climactic and bloody showdown. The themes of justice, law enforcement, the untamed West, corruption, revenge, honor, feminism and masculinity, mythic heroes vs. reality, the tainted gunfighter, and the central, brooding and complex message of the non-glamorous, painful nature of gunplay and violence are well-delineated.
The script was originally titled The William Munny Killings. The nominated original screenplay by David Webb Peoples is taut, revisionist and believable, radically redefining, and realistically debunking and demythologizing the grandeur and romanticism of the Western genre.
The R-rated film was commercially successful at the time of its release and its acting was universally praised. It also was Eastwood's first film to pass the $100 million mark. Overall, the film was nominated for nine Academy Awards and won four major ones: Best Picture (Clint Eastwood as producer), Best Supporting Actor (Gene Hackman - his second Oscar after winning for The French Connection (1971)), Best Director, and Best Film Editing (Joel Cox). The non-winning nominations were for Best Actor (Clint Eastwood lost to Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman), Best Original Screenplay (David Webb Peoples lost to The Crying Game), Best Art Direction/Set Decoration (lost to Howards End), Best Cinematography (lost to A River Runs Through It), and Best Sound (lost to The Last of the Mohicans).
Eastwood's film helped to revive the reputation of Westerns, becoming only the third Western ever to win the Best Picture Academy Award. Two years earlier, another Western film Dances With Wolves (1990) took the top honor. The first Western to win the Best Picture Oscar was Cimarron (1930/1931).The Story
A frontier home, lone tree, golden sunset, and a man digging a grave site are silhouetted on the horizon in the opening, long-shot image. Narrative background scrolls up the screen after a few opening titles. William Munny, a reputed outlaw, buries his young, 29 year old wife after she died of smallpox:
She was a comely young woman and not without prospects. Therefore it was heartbreaking to her mother that she would enter into marriage with William Munny, a known thief and murderer, a man of notoriously vicious and intemperate disposition.
When she died, it was not at his hands as her mother might have expected, but of smallpox. That was 1878.
Then, two years later in "Big Whiskey Wyoming, 1880," as storm clouds gather and thunder roars over the snow-covered mountains, night falls and rain beats down over the town. Upstairs in the local Greely's Beer Gardens and Billiard Parlor (an euphemistic misnomer), prostitutes Strawberry Alice (Frances Fisher) and Delilah Fitzgerald (Anna Levine) are letting two drunken cowpokes from the Bar T (Davey Bunting (Rob Campbell) and Quick Mike (David Mucci)) service (or ride) them in adjoining, darkly-lit rooms when a scuffle breaks out. Glass smashes and Mike threatens Delilah, his whore of the evening: "I'll brand you like a damn steer, bitch." He yells at Davey to help him "hold her or I'll cut her tits off." With loud slashing and slicing sounds, he scars Delilah's face with a knife, mocking her: "Do you think it's funny?" The mutilation is broken up by the brothel's owner Skinny Dubois (Anthony James), who threateningly cocks his gun at the back of Mike's head.
The town's sheriff "Little Bill" Daggett (Gene Hackman) is summoned from his sleep to the scene by Clyde Ledbetter (Ron White): "He says he's gonna shoot 'em. I says, 'Skinny, you can't do that,' and he says, 'Well, let's get Little Bill in here and settle this thing.'" The feisty, red-headed Alice, the prostitutes' spokesperson/madam, explains why Mike became so enraged with Delilah - she unintentionally mocked him about his male inadequacy:
She didn't steal nothin'. She didn't even touch his poke. All she done, when she seen he had a teensy little pecker is give a giggle. That's all. She didn't know no better. You gonna hang 'em, Little Bill?
In the middle of the downstairs floor, the two cowboys are tied back to back, and Little Bill asks for his bull-whip to punish them for the assault: "A whippin' ain't no little thing, Alice." An unforgiving Alice is astounded that the proposed punishment isn't justice enough, and doesn't fit the harsh crime. Skinny argues that financial reimbursement for his "damaged property" (the loss of the whore's potential earnings) is more appropriate:
Skinny: This here is a lawful contract between me and Delilah Fitzgerald, the cut whore. I brought here clear from Boston. I paid her expenses and all, and I've got a contract that represents an investment of capital.
Little Bill: Property.
Skinny: Damaged property, like if I was to hamstring one of their cow ponies.
Little Bill: Are you figurin' nobody will want to f--k her now, right?
Skinny: Hell no, least ways, they won't pay to do it. Maybe she can clean up the place or somethin', but nobody's gonna pay good money for a cut-up whore.
Deciding that a trial is unnecessary ("no fuss") after hearing from Skinny that his disfigured Delilah is now like damaged goods, the misogynistic Little Bill decrees a fine. He orders that the cowpoke Mike must bring in five ponies in the fall and deliver them to Skinny, and that Davey must deliver two ponies, with the following ultimatum: "Let me tell ya, come this spring, if Skinny don't have those ponies, I'm gonna come looking for you." The brothel's madam, Alice, is infuriated by the unjust travesty - the unworthy whore isn't compensated nor are the cowboys punished:
Alice: You ain't even gonna whip 'em?...For what they done? Skinny gets some ponies and that's it? That ain't fair, Little Bill!
Little Bill: Haven't you seen enough blood for one night, hmm? Hell, Alice, it ain't like they was tramps, or loafers or bad men. You know, they were just hard-working boys that was foolish. If they was given over to wickedness in a regular way, then I could understand...
As the whores tend to Delilah's deep facial wounds, an outraged Alice takes justice into her own hands as an activist. She collects funds from the oppressed women to raise bounty money to spread the word (or to hire gunmen) to shoot the offending perpetrators of the crime: "Just because we let them smelly fools ride us like horses don't mean we gotta let 'em brand us like horses. Maybe we ain't nothin' but whores but we, by God, we ain't horses."
The scene returns to the silhouetted farm house in the spring - but now the image is flipped horizontally. An inept, marginally-prosperous, Kansas pig farmer William Munny (Clint Eastwood), a widower, is corraling hogs with his two children Penny (Aline Levasseur) and Will (Shane Meier) - clumsily separating the fevered ones from the healthy ones. A young, macho, would-be gunslinger, self-proclaimed as the "Schofield Kid" (Jaimz Woolvett), Pete Sothow's nephew, has just arrived at Munny's pig farm. He mocks Munny's efforts:
You don't look like no rootin'-tootin', son-of-a-bitchin', cold-blooded assassin...The same one who shot Charlie Pepper up in Lake County...You're the one who killed William Harvey and robbed that train over in Missouri.
Long-retired from gunfighting after marriage, Munny's legendary, violent past and reputation has relentlessly trailed after him: "I thought maybe you was someone come to kill me for something I'd done in the old days." From his Uncle Pete, the Kid had heard of Munny's reputation - that he "was the meanest, god-damned son of a bitch alive...if I ever wanted a partner for a killing, you were the worst one - meaning the best on account of you're as cold as the snow and you don't have no weak nerve, nor fear." The Kid is a self-promoting, boastful killer: "I'm a damn killer myself, except I ain't killed as many as you because of my youth." He calls himself the "Schofield Kid" on account of his "Schofield model Smith and Wesson pistol." The young, neophyte, hot-shot outlaw, wishing to pluck Munny from his retirement on the farm (and slightly disappointed by the appearance of the muddy farmer), offers Munny partnership after hearing exaggerated rumors about a bounty hunt. The Kid offers to split the reward fifty-fifty:
I'm heading up north in through Nobrera to Wyoming. I'm gonna kill a couple of no-good cowboys...for cuttin' up a lady. They cut up her face, cut her eyes out, cut her ears off, hell, they even cut her teats...A thousand dollars reward, Will. Five hundred apiece.
Munny is unresponsive to the tempting offer. In his past, his whiskey drinking encouraged his gunplay, but through the guiding, controlling, taming influence of his late wife, who "passed on...near three years now," she made his give up his wicked, lawless ways eleven years earlier. Thoughout the film, Munny repeats the refrain: "I ain't like that anymore."
Munny: I ain't like that anymore, Kid. It was whiskey done it as much as anythin' else. I ain't had a drop in over ten years. My wife, she cured me of that, cured me of drink and wickedness.
Kid: Well, you don't look so prosperous. Hell, you could buy her a new dress with your half. We could kill them two, you could buy your wife one fancy...
As the Kid rides away alone - but wishes Munny would catch up to him if he changes his mind ("I'll be riding due west for the western trail headin' north into Wyoming"), the circumstances of Munny's homestead life come down hard on him. His wallowing, muddy hogs are feverish and dying, and he's poor with two children to care for - in a place where "we don't see no one out here." He leans on the pig corral and looks toward the departing figure on the horizon, contemplating the easy bounty money for the betterment of his kids. Back in Big Whiskey, Wyoming, Davey and Mike finally bring in a string of ponies - it's springtime - to abide by the Sheriff's judgment. As a gesture of kindness, Davey has brought a third "beauty" - ("She's the best of the lot, better than the ones I gave him. She can sell her or do what she wants") for "the one my partner cut," but the prostitutes pelt them with stones and angrily deny his "charity" to his face: "A pony? She ain't got no face left. You're gonna give her a god-damn mangy pony?"
The lure of the bounty hunt and the old West stirs in Munny's blood - he digs through a box of momentos and finds an old picture of his wife, but searches further until he finds his real desire - his gun. Outside, in a classic scene of out-of-practice target shooting, he misses his mark each time - even while sober - as he empties his gun at a can placed on a stump. Penny asks quizzically: "Did Pa used to kill folks?" With overkill, he blasts the can away with a shotgun. Before leaving, he visits his wife's gravesite with a marker: "CLAUDIA FEATHERS MUNNY, Born Mar 11, 1849, Died Aug 6 1878, Aged 29 Years." He places wild flowers there to remember her by, and then leaves his two children unattended. Munny tells them he'll be gone for a couple of weeks, only reassuring them that they could seek help with neighbor Ned Logan's Indian companion if necessary: "If you have any problems, go see Sally Two Trees at Ned Logan's."
Mounting his unaccustomed saddle horse is extremely difficult, and he struggles to control the frisky animal - a symbol of the lawless, animalistic part of himself:
(reflectively) Ain't hardly been in the saddle myself in a while. This old horse is getting even with me for the sins of my youth. In my youth, before I met your dear departed Ma, I used to be weak and given to mistreatin' animals...This horse and those hogs over there are gettin' even with me for the cruelty that I inflicted. I used to be able to cuss and whip a horse like this, but your Ma, rest her soul, showed me the error of my ways. Now I'll be back in a couple weeks. You remember how the spirit of your dear departed Ma watches over ya.