Requiem for a Western9/10
Unforgiven will always be the last Western. No matter what comes after it, Tombstone, The Missing, or Wyatt Erp, Unforgiven has the final word. Not that I wouldn't characterize those films as Westerns, but the spirit of Unforgiven, from the opening shot of the house with the scrawny tree and lonely grave, to the end which returns there, is imbued with the finality of a spent genre. The feelings evoked are ambivalent and distant, much like the characters within Unforgiven itself. Perhaps Clint Eastwood's genius lies partially in that he doesn't allow for us to mourn. It wouldn't be western to cry because a story-form is over, it wouldn't be leather to empathize for a broken man who doesn't want your sympathy, it wouldn't be spurs to despair about the implacable and corrupt forces of life which turn men like William Munny into killers.
Clint Eastwood presents to the audience the most distorted configuration of the western; the most disfigured example of a genre whose classical conventions were untouchable and sacrosanct. We have no heroes and no villains, only a protagonist and a puffed up sheriff who thinks he's doing the right thing (and does in fact have more moral vision than the dried out killer) The movie itself is riddled with identity crises, the killer has turned into a farmer and a father, the young gunslinger is a virgin to bloodletting, the sheriff shows signs of being a slave master, and the innocent one gets it first and gets it dirty. Gone are the days of the Magnificent 7 where one rode into town, rallied the brave cowpokes with shiny silver pistols, and dispatched an easily recognizable enemy. Gone even are the days of Bonnie and Clyde where gunslingers were attractive and fascinating to the audience, exuding flair, charisma, and sparking the imagination. They were legends; William Munny is a sad bit of history. He is presented with deadpan honesty, not as a caricatured Tarantino assassin, or a misunderstood old man who has atoned for past wrongs. He is a broken human person, so lost along the moral frontier that the only compass he can grasp is more killing.
Throughout the movie, we are reminded again and again of the stark contrast Unforgiven stands in to most other Westerns, by the obsequious scribe W. W. Beauchamp. He was the one who wrote the John Wayne stories, (the ones with ethical clarity at least). He was the one who coined phrases like "high-noon" and "hot lead". In Unforgiven, Clint Eastwood, takes apart the classical western narrative piece by piece allowing the audience to inspect the illusion. Characters like English Bob are unscrupulous frauds, ladies in distress are revenge bent whores, and old men really don't ever change for the better. They become that way when sensationalized by hack storytellers like Beauchamp. And when the only character materializes who seems to at least fit the description of gunslinger, Munny is so empty and hopelessly unheroic that we begin to reconcile ourselves to the end of the Western. Where else is there to go? We understand how the old stories were crafted thanks to the insider's view provided by Beauchamp, and what's left is a craggy faced cadaver with a dead wife, a dead friend, and two forgotten children.
Every character within Unforgiven inhabits a gray zone that clouds the audiences's ability to easily categorize them as good or evil. We are forced to come to a more nuanced understanding of each as a human being with redeeming as well as corrupt qualities. The two cowboys committed a horrendous crime by knifing the prostitute, but did they deserve death, especially the young one, who didn't do the knifing, clearly felt remorse, and tried to make a peace offering? The whores are right to demand justice, but do they ever take into account the wishes of the victim, who if anything seems to strike some romantic sparks with the young cowboy. By the film's end, they are bloodthirsty sirens screaming at the body of the dead young cowboy. The sheriff Little Bill, compounds the opening crime by allowing it to go unpunished, but later exposes English Bob and tries to keep people from getting killed--(is he protecting unrepentant criminals, or is he allowing old wounds to heal?) And of course there's Munny himself, who won't pay to touch a woman but will kill prolifically for a purpose that is murky at best.
By Unforgiven's end, the audience feels alienated from characters and message. The conclusion of William Munny's life is narrated by a cold, impersonal voice that labels him a scoundrel, but doesn't care enough to waste much breath condemning him. We are left with the image of the homestead, the center and heart of the Western film, where man attempted to master the wildness within his environment and himself. This house is empty and abandoned, its only companion the forlorn grave memorializing a genre which has passed away.