‘You sure don’t look like no rootin’ tootin’ son of a bitch or cold blooded assassin,’ exclaims young upstart and wannabe bounty hunter The Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett),when he first comes across Clint Eastwood’s wrinkly, grizzled widower Will Munny, working the earth in the old American west. Looking to cash in on the bounty offered up by a group of prostitutes for the swift execution of the bandits who cut up one of their own, the Kid can scarcely believe the sad, tired old man before him is ‘the meanest son of a bitch alive,’ that he’s been searching for. He’s in for one helluva surprise, as in this impeccable Best Picture Oscar winner directed by Eastwood himself, the lines between fact and myth, heroism and villainy are ambiguously blurred, with Clint reminding audiences that there’s plenty life in the old dog yet.
When we first encounter Munny, it’s easy to see where the Kid is coming from, as the supposedly reformed mercenary who hung up his guns long, long ago seems like an old, washed-up has-been, left to run a farm and doing a pretty lousy job of it. As he wrestles with his conscience, interesting questions are raised about Will’s motivations for considering this One Last Job: is it about the money? This job could guarantee a better future for his poor, motherless kids. Or is it about doing what’s right? As Will says of the outlaws he’ll be tasked with murdering, drunken animals who gleefully slashed up a young whore: ‘they got it comin’.’ Yet, there is also a hint of suggestion that this is the opportunity he’s waited years for – the chance to get back into doing the only damn thing he was ever any good at, namely cold, hard killing. It’s to Eastwood’s credit that he keeps us guessing, right up to the film’s awesome, shocking crescendo, whether Munny will live up to the legends.
As Munny attempts to get back into character, eleven long years after he left his bounty hunting days behind, we discover that he can barely get up on his horse and really can’t shoot for shit anymore. Munny needs to get his mojo back, cutting a poignant figure, as own kids look on, embarrassed by the old lug struggling to get back in the saddle. It is interesting to see Eastwood, an absolute legend of the Western genre, exposing his frailties by taking on such a flawed, vulnerable role, and it is a profound, emotional experience joining him on his journey to see if, after all these years, he’s still got what it takes to be a real Hard Bastard.
Joining up with his old comrade Ned (Morgan Freeman), Munny and the Kid ride off for the little town of Big Whisky, where Gene Hackman’s hardnosed sheriff ‘Little’ Bill Daggett keeps the peace by resorting to brutal, violent tactics. Along the way the men reminisce around the campfire, giving insight into their past transgressions. He sees a lot of himself in the big-talkin’, whisky-sluggin’ Schofield Kid and it is evident in his eyes that he doesn’t like what he sees, the young, innocent buck standing at a crossroads in his life that reminds the old warhorse of the lamentable path he once took. Munny seems disconsolate as he considers some of the terrible things he’s supposed to have done. ‘You ain’t like that no more,’ opines Ned, but something in his voice only half convinces us, and it is little ambiguities like this that make the film such a treat. As their journey continues, small tidbits about Munny’s past are gradually teased out, constantly altering our perceptions of the cowpoke who, at first, seemed merely nothing more than a harmless old man. Munny is at once a sad, lonely old fool who still pines for his dead wife, but also shady, whispered-about gunslinger, described by those who remember his from way-back-when as ‘cold as the snow.’ Yet despite all we learn about him, Munny still manages to engage our sympathies, staying true to his deceased beloved when the prostitutes offer him ‘free ones’, and soaking up a beating from Little Bill, when he is cornered in a saloon. Relentlessly battered for daring to bear arms in Bill’s town, we are left to ponder if Munny is still cut out for all this, as he barely puts up a fight as the lawman wades in. Munny also shows compassion when, having shown off his rifle skills by tagging one of the whore-slashing outlaws from considerable distance, he allows the desperado’s pals to bring him water as his life slowly, painfully ebbs away in the afternoon desert heat. It says a lot for Clint’s performance that though Munny kills for money, we find ourselves wholeheartedly rooting for him.
Munny just about scrapes through the final bullet-whizzin’ encounter with the outlaw gang, seemingly relieved that the Kid takes care of the more grisly acts of violence by blasting the final bandit as he sits on the crapper. The job seemingly over, both men seem disconcerted, regretful of what they’ve done, with the Kid swearing off violence for the rest of his days, telling Will ‘I’m not like you.’ Going their separate ways, Munny too seems to swear off his wicked ways, bearing a sad, confused look that tells us that this experience really did not provide him with the closure he was searching for. However, all that changes when word reaches that Ned has been captured and killed by Little Bill for not revealing the whereabouts of his partners and Munny saddles up one last time to go and even the score. That sad look transforms into one of horrible acceptance that makes us instantly understand that he’s been holding back this whole time. His friend is dead and it’s all his fault, and the real old Will has to come back if he’s gonna do this properly. Things are about to get ugly…
Swaggering into the local brothel on his lonesome, brandishing a massive rifle, Munny suddenly seems to have doubled in height, chest puffed out, that familiar Eastwood growl spooking out every miserable straphanger in the joint. When it all kicks off, Munny is like a man transformed, the demon finally unleashed as he tears up the place, blasting anything with a pulse, shouting cool, fearsome things like ‘I killed everything that ever walked or crawled!’ When his rifle misfires, he still finds time to chuck it at Little Bill, before drawing his six-shooter, so ineffective before, and displaying some spectacular marksmanship to take out multiple cowpokes in seconds. Unloading into Bill’s head, Munny stares right into his eyes, not even flinching as he does so. It has been a long time getting there, but this is Clint’s supreme badass moment that we have all been waiting for, and it is so scorchingly incendiary that it is well worth it.
With Bill dead and the job done, Will savours the moment and takes a long hard drink of whisky – his first in years. It is his moment of acceptance, a realisation that he can never change the man he is and the things he’s done. As an onlooker cries, ‘You killed five men singlehanded!’, Munny just shrugs and drawls, ‘Yeah…’ like it’s no big thing. To escape the bar, Munny roars to all gathered outside that he will kill every man in town and their wives if they try to stop him riding out of there, fearsomely leaving us to contemplate if he is merely playing up to his legend, or if he is capable of far, far worse. Riding off, he orders the townsfolk to ‘bury Ned right, or I’ll come back and kill every one of you sons of bitches,’ and you kind of get the impression that they will most certainly be sparing no expense for the poor bastard’s send-off.
Unforgiven is Clint at his finest, sucker-punching the audience as he unleashes a character who turns out to be far more frightening and stoic than we are ever led to believe. The film brilliantly plays with legend and fact, reputation versus truth, to deliver a memorable character study for the ages. Will Munny is, without a doubt, one Hard Bastard.
INDESTRUCTIBILITY: 7/10 – He’s old, he’s weary, but if you hurt his friends, he will not be stopped!
COMBAT SKILLS: 7/10 – He’s rubbish at first, but reveals he was only holding back. When the monster is unleashed this guy could kill you in his sleep.
ATTITUDE: 6/10 – Ambiguous. The bad guys definitely got it comin’, but it’s hinted that Munny’s perpetrated some seriously nasty shit in the past.
OUTRAGEOUSNESS: 7/10 – Lives up to his reputation as ‘the meanest son of a bitch alive.’
BODY COUNT: 7 kills in 131 minutes – takes far too long to unleash the beast. But then, that’s the point… 1/10
CLINT’S SCORE: 28/50