By Steve Light
When the western film True Grit was released in 2010, nobody expected that it would win an Oscar for best picture. And it didn’t. Writing in the Los Angeles Times, Susan King remarked that the nomination of Joel and Ethan Cohen’s True Grit highlighted how rarely westerns have actually won the best picture award; the last western to win was Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven in l992.
True Grit received mixed reviews upon its release, including some very negative appraisals. However, when Unforgiven appeared, it won widespread critical acclaim both for its willingness, according to the critics, to depart from the genre, and its claimed success in “de-glamorizing” and “deconstructing” the archetype of the gunfighter (and even the western itself). But if such was Eastwood’s intention — and it appears that in part it was, — then I do not think one can state that his effort was successful.
The film, in its overarching structural trajectory and diction, and above all in its concluding scene, reproduces the standard rhetorico-emotional appeal designed to arouse desire for the gunslinger-as-hero, as well as the desire that the gunslinger — no matter his character or history — carry out a necessary and just retribution, thereby righting some wrong brought about by the film’s unambiguous villain.. Because of this, nothing in Unforgiven is sufficiently de-glamorized or “deconstructed”. In fact, its plot and rhetoric places the film in a special genre, one that has become increasingly common over the past 20 years —L.A Confidential is another example of this–i.e., the kind of film that ostensibly carries out critical functions vis-a-vis socio-political realities and the ways these realities have been depicted and legitimized in standard Hollywood fare, but in actuality pulls its punches. Once again, precisely by virtue of the “ostensibilities” in question, such films fulfill a legitimation and reinforcement function of said realities.
In Unforgiven, Clint Eastwood plays William Munny, a former gunman. As he says of himself: “I killed men, women, children — anything at all really…” But then he reformed, married, and had two children. He quit drinking on the insistence of his wife and chose to live on a tiny little patch of land miles from anywhere at all, where he now labors at pig farming and cares for his two young children, his wife having passed away. . Meanwhile, in a small town run by an unsavory gunfighter named Little Bill Dagget (played by Gene Hackman), two traveling cowboys brutalize one of the town’s prostitutes, Delilah Fitzgerald (played by Anna Levine). Her fellow brothel workers are so outraged that they raise money and secretly spread word of a reward for whomever kills the two cowboys. They do so secretly because they know Gene Hackman will not take kindly to this independent initiative. And of course he doesn’t. When a gunfighter, English Bob (played by Richard Harris), comes to town in hopes of winning the reward money, Little Bill (Gene Hackman) has him surrounded by his men. He then disarms him, knocks him to the ground, kicks him repeatedly and announces to all — in such a way that word will spread far and wide — that thoughts of a reward should be put away for good, because anyone who comes to this town will meet only brutal treatment and perhaps death.
This message doesn’t reach Will Munny; instead, he hears only of the reward from a young, would-be-gunman, the self-proclaimed “Schofield Kid” (played by Jaimz Woolvett) who seeks him out to be his partner in pursuit of the bounty. Reluctantly, Will agrees, believing the reward money will help secure his children’s future. He enlists the aid of a former companion, Ned Logan (played by Morgan Freeman). Freeman is also reluctant, and his Native American wife is clearly angry that Will wants to bring Logan back into the fold. But her unhappiness does not sway Ned. The three set off. All of this is well done and the dialog is spirited and humorous. Freeman is superb as always.
Eventually the men locate the young cowboys. Sitting on a bluff with Munny and the Schofield Kid, Ned Logan aims his rifle at one of the cowboys down below but doesn’t shoot. “I can’t do this anymore,” he says. And he departs. Eastwood’s character then takes the rifle and shoots the cowboy, but only wounds him. But he shoots again and mortally wounds the exposed cowboy, who cries out in prolonged anguish..
Subsequently, Will and the Schofield Kid track the lone remaining cowboy to an abandoned shack and find him in the outhouse. The Schofield Kid catches him by surprise and shoots him dead. The Kid’s bluster is exposed because he has never killed anyone; he becomes emotionally sick. He vomits and realizes that killing is not at all like he imagined. Out of guilt and emotional turmoil, he tells Will to keep his portion of the reward and he rides off. “I’m not like you,” he says to Will.
Eastwood’s intentions here are clear. This sequence has been designed to present this notion: gunfighters and their victims are not in reality as they they are normally depicted in westerns. Instantaneous death, clean and neat in terms of pain and the emotional toll taken on the killer in one way or another— are falsifications. But the film doesn’t carry these notions through to the end. If the film had offered a different conclusion, these depictions could have resonated further, and could have been more successful in shaping the nature of the film’s implied and explicit signification.
Instead, the film’s conclusion ends up reverting to the most standard of plot formations — certainly the most standard of western plot formations. One of the prostitutes rides out to Will and gives him the reward money. But she also tells him that Ned has been captured by Little Bill and killed. Now everything is back to where it was; the cinematic arc has turned; the classical form emerges as if it had been waiting all along. Moreover, the initial killings had been carried out on behalf of a woman, a just cause, and in the eyes of the implied auteur a just form of redemption. Now killing must take place on behalf of Will’s African American friend. These appeals,constitute further evidence of a standard genre plot. Primed by the standard cinematic-rhetorical appeals the implied audience doesn’t want Will to immediately ride to Ned’s home and give his Native American wife Ned’s share of the money and doesn’t want Will to immediately ride to his children with the remaining money that will secure their future. Rather the implied audience “wants” Little Bill brought to justice as it were–and his henchmen too.
Now the scene flips to evening. The sky is dark and rain pelts the landscape. A man rides slowly down the main street to a tavern. Out front is an upright open coffin revealing the body of Ned Logan. The swinging doors creak and Will enters with a rifle. The tavern is crowded. Little Bill is at the bar and Will announces that Little Bill must die for murdering Ned. Little Bill turns and addressing his men with a snarl, instructs them to shoot Will down “like the mongrel dog that he is.” Will fires but his rifle jams and everyone reaches for their gun. Will has always been cool and emotionless in the tumult of killing. It was why he was so good at this trade. He proceeds to mortally wound Little Bill and kill five others. He emerges unharmed. Then he announces that everyone should exit the bar.
Though these scenes are standard in form, they also carry a couple of non-standard moments: they seem to show that shooting at someone in such a situation rattles one’s nerves, and that shots fired are not as accurate as movies have long depicted them to be. We also see that Will doesn’t shoot too fast — he doesn’t get rattled. While others frantically miss, he shoots with deliberation and accuracy. But then he is the “hero”.
After killing the other men, Will goes to the bar to have a drink. But he then hears the hammer of a gun click open. He turns to see that Little Bill, lying on the floor, is not yet dead and is trying to turn and shoot Will. Will jumps up, grabs his rifle, and kicks Little Bill’s gun out of his hand. He stands over him and, after a brief verbal exchange (“I’ll see you in hell William Munny,” says Little Bill) sends him to his death. He shouts to those outside that they better not shoot or he’ll kill them. And he walks out into the rain which has now intensified. He mounts his horse and, shouting that they better give Ned a proper burial, that they should not brutalize women, and that they better mend their ways, he slowly, beneath the battering rain, rides out of town. Hence here the film gives out the habitual portion of emotional satisfaction characteristic of the genre, i.e. that the right thing has been done and that the scales of justice have been balanced.
For a moment the audience had seemingly been treated to a so-called “new western,” but this was a momentary diversion.. Clearly, the archetypes and clichés of “dark night,” “pouring rain,” “tavern doors swinging open,” “all the villains shot down by one man who is not even nicked by an opponent’s shot,” etc., remain intact
The movie is entirely watchable and entertaining. But Unforgiven is a film that is but one more restoration rather than a departure. And this is what it usually takes to win an Oscar best picture.
Steve Light, a basketball point-guard following upon Nate Archibald, Pete Maravich, and Willie Somerset — and akin as well to Steve Nash, Chris Paul, Stephen Curry, and Earl Boykins — is also a philosopher and poet.