Surrealism on the prairie
by Dan Moray
Unforgiven opens with a wide shot of a barren landscape, a solitary farmhouse, and a man working an ax. Over this serene though stark sunset, director Clint Eastwood uses plain rolling text as an introduction to the main characters of the film. We read of an unnamed woman described as "comely and not without prospects." Against her mother's wishes, this woman marries a man named William Munny, a "known thief and murderer, a man of notoriously vicious and intemperate disposition." She dies in 1887. He doesn't kill her; smallpox does. Because we never see her face or hear her voice, the piety and righteousness of her life is an image left to the mind. How clever. How personal. How vague.
The film fades to black, and we are transported to 1890 Wyoming, to a little outpost on the fringe with the best-named town a western film could ask for, Big Whiskey. Without wasting time, Eastwood throws us into a whorehouse full of action. A cowboy slashes the face of one of the women, and all the madness and screaming ends with a sound we've come to know and love in our westerns a gun being cocked. Everything stops at the sound. And we meet "Little Bill," the arrogantly violent sheriff whose deviously sadistic authority is the only law in Big Whiskey. Little Bill leads the townspeople like sheep, with an ironfisted yet whimsical enforcement of laws. This time, his whim is to do nothing except give the whorehouse owner some ponies as compensation for his lost income. Enraged, the whores pool up money as a reward to anyone who kills the cowboys involved in the slashing. After all, as Madam Delilah says, "just because we let them smelly fools ride us like horses doesn't mean we have to let 'em brand us like horses."
Now the film takes us back to the farm. When the Schofield Kid, in search of a partner to help him
capture that reward, rides up looking for William Munny (Clint Eastwood), he can't believe that this broken-down, mud-covered, skinny pig farmer and single parent of two young children could be the legendary cold-blooded killer feared by all. My question is how Munny even lived so long. Men who continually carry out heinous crimes against civilians don't generally last in western movies someone usually kills them. But nobody's killed William Munny. Another sadistic cinematic killer, Liberty Valance, didn't live long enough to utter the phrase "I'm just a fellow now? I ain't no different than anyone else no more." Munny did. If John Wayne's ruthless killer Ethan had gone through The Searchers repeating the phrase "I ain't like that anymore," would he remain credible?
And that's not all. The Schofield Kid turns out to be severely nearsighted? It's absurd. What's even more absurd is the decision to accept this very limited, very dangerous, all too eager kid into the longtime partnership shared by Munny and Ned Logan, played calmly and honestly, you know, like a conscience or something, by Morgan Freeman. In Unforgiven, writer David Webb Peoples and director and costar Clint Eastwood have conjured something that surrealist director Luis Buuel would certainly have loved. A gunfighter who's just a fellow? And another one who needs glasses? Who needs Buster Keaton!
Unforgiven will be shown at the U-M Modern Languages Building on Thursday, April 7.
[Originally published in April, 2005.]