Ageing gunman, William Munny, recently widowed, is enticed into one last job to help a house of prostitutes wreak their revenge on a vicious cowboy who cut up the face of one of the girls. But violence takes its toll, even on the supposedly righteous.
In the end credit crawl of Unforgiven is a small note dedicating the film to "Sergio and Don." The message is clear: Eastwood's philosophical rumination on the Old West of history and the Old West of history is a paean to his mentors Sergio Leone and Don Siegal (the directors who created his iconic personas: The Man With No Name and Dirty Harry). It is a hymn to their legacy of uncompromising anti-heroism, and maybe a small prayer for forgiveness as he sets about re-evaluating their violent fantasy.
Blade Runner's David Webb Peoples wrote the script in 1976 when Eastwood picked it up discerning its resonance with his own career, ready to sit on it until he was old (and worn) enough to fit the bill for ageing William Munny, reformed killer, drawn back to his old ways by the lure of money and ultimately revenge. The set-up has an almost mundane practicality to it: a bounty set by vengeful prostitutes after one of their number has her face slashed by a drunk rancher. The sheriff of Big Whiskey, Little Bill (played with Oscar-wining class by the ineffable Gene Hackman) — raconteur, moralist, psychopath — faced with an influx of men of "low character" clamps down hard.
Richard Harris, in a magnificent cameo, is English Bob, a pompous assassin dragging around a nervy biographer Beachamps (Saul Rubinek), who faces the full brutality of Bill's policing. Beachamps finds himself purloined by the equally self-important sheriff — who gleefully dismantles his tales of rugged killers and their lethal habits.
The film plays a brilliant sleight-of-hand: it allows us to empathise with Munny, expectant he will rise into the Eastwood mould, but all the while a picture emerges of someone wholly despicable: "a killer of women and children." You accept it but don't defer your opinion, you still root for him unable to shed those preconceptions of history. Little Bill, ostensibly the villain, is a rigid upholder of the law — yet we come to despise his perverse moralism and misogyny.
Perceptions of heroism are constantly being muddied. Munny can barely mount his horse anymore, the young buck Sisco Kid (Jamie Woolvertz) who hounds him out of retirement is hopelessly myopic (he, too, has trouble seeing beyond the craggy legends of yore). Every act of violence carries an aftershock; the film is keen to assess the costs of killing as much for the killer as the victim. No-one dies clean: they struggle, whimpering to desultory, pathetic deaths (one is even shot taking a shit).
Cutting through the swaggering folklore upheld by Beachamp's penny-dreadful novelettes (a metaphor for the glowing heroics of the old-school movie western) murder is a costly business, it hurts, it drains the soul — there is an almost physical transformation in Munny as the darkness regains a hold and he becomes a cold-blooded murderer once more (the past has caught up with him, he is "unforgiven"). In an extraordinary and pivotal scene, The Kid, drawing whiskey from an open bottle, finds it impossible to come to terms with the guilt that echoes from his actions (it transpires he is a virgin to the killing game).
With taciturn bluntness Munny cuts to the heart of the film's conscience. Munny: "Hell of a thing, killin' a man. Take away all he's got and all he's ever gonna have." Kid: "Yeah, well, I guess he had it comin'." Munny: "We all got it comin', kid." A man's sins will always catch up with him: we cannot escape ourselves. The climactic showdown is a sudden jolt from the measured solemnity that has come before it. Rasping and angry with whiskey coursing through his veins, Munny strides into the brothel where it all began to seek out Ned (Freeman)'s killers and reap bloody revenge.
This is no glorious shoot-out but point blank assassination. But all the while Beachamp's eyes continue to glitter as he begins to concoct legend out of truth. Which is exactly what most filmmakers have always done. Reputedly his swansong in the saddle, Eastwood has rent the veil of the Old West, the mythological strata of America, to find something harder and truer.
This is a harsh, barbaric world striving to shape its future. It is also a fitting memoir to the myth-making of Eastwood's own career, here's an old man trying to let go of his past ("I ain't like that no more") but his past won't let go of him. Unforgiven won Best Film at the Oscars and Eastwood picked up Best Director. No-one could argue. He had it coming.
As cold and mean as a gun barrel, as rich and intuitive as any classic.