Don’t put your six-shooters away quite yet--especially if you’re in Big Whiskey County--we’re back with another western this week.
And I admit, this is one I hadn’t seen before. Not because I was avoiding it or anything like that. I knew this was going to be great, and it was one of those movies I was saving. But no better reason to unpop that cork than to do an AFI film school segment.
As always, I’m following along with the order of dope podcast Unspooled, which picks a different AFI movie to discuss, based of the roll of a 100-sided-die, and I talk about what each movie is saying and specific things it did well, especially helpful for aspiring filmmakers or just anyone who wants to look at movies deeper. Since this is my first experience with this one, I’m giving my first impression of these things.
Here we are with 1992’s Unforgiven, directed by Clint Eastwood and written by David Webb Peoples.
The best stories have an underlying theme, a statement it’s making or question it’s asking, and as I watched this, it dawned on me that it’s a question that runs through the veins of this one: “how does our reputation differ from who we really are?”
Reputation is HUGE to these characters, and their reps dictate how they treat one another.
Will can’t live down his. His mother-in-law judges him on who she thinks he is and never understands why her daughter would marry a man like him. Though he was once a killer, he constantly says throughout the movie that he’s no longer like that. He even lets the Kid think that he killed only two men in a shoot-out, when Ned later reveals that it was three.
Just as Will is trying to play down his reputation, English Bob is trying to play up his. He travels with W.W., a writer, who despite never having used a gun is incredibly powerful since he can set a person’s reputation in stone. Bob convinces W.W. that he’s more brave and skilled than he really is, but Little Bill disabuses W.W. of this idea and even the reputation of the wild west itself.
The Schofield Kid also tries to convey a more impressive reputation. He claims that he had killed multiple people, but after he commits an actual murder, the horror of it eats that dude alive. He confesses that he lied about his credentials and that he doesn’t have the stomach to be an assassin.
Little Bill is a guy who cares way more about his own reputation than what his actual deeds are. Happy to give reputations to others, including putting a sign on Ned’s corpse reading “This is what happens to assasins around here,” he gives zero shits about what the bad guys do to the prostitutes. Once he realizes that his own image will be tarnished if assassins come into town, only then does he start to get tough. He does some despicable things just to keep his “good name” in line.
English Bob proposes an interesting hypothetical: it would be much mentally tougher to assassinate a queen than a president. The queen carries such an impressive reputation, appearing to be a larger-than-human figure, while a president is constantly changing and looked at as just a person.
So far in these film school posts, the themes we’ve looked at have been statements, but this one is a question. I talk about this in detail in my article Starting with a Stop, but the difference is while a statement gives a definitive point of view, a question shows multiple sides of something and let’s the audience come up with their own interpretation.
Most of the characters DON’T live up to their reputation in the film, BUUUUT there’s one who does: William Munny.
Intent throughout the movie on proving he’s not the man people says he is, by the end he accepts it: he’s a killer. He could have gone home, but he knows he has to go back to town to settle a score with Little Bill. Yes, his reasons are noble, protecting the sex workers and ensuring that Ned receives respect, but he ultimately is living up to his image.
What can be taken away
Watching Unforgiven was a great experience, and aside from the fascinating theme, I also picked up some other things that it did incredibly well.
One thing this movie does that I love when movies do is allow for moments where the viewer is not quite sure why they’re watching what they’re watching. And then things start slowly adding up.
A crawl appears at the beginning, explaining the relationship between Will his mother-in-law. Then instead of cutting to either of those characters, we see Quick Mike and Davey-Boy with the sex workers and then them with Little Bill. This makes the audience wonder “what the hell does that have to do with what I just read?!“
This happens again on the train when we first meet English Bob. We have no idea what’s happening and how the characters we’re seeing relate to anything we saw before.
When a movie or a TV show does this, it arouses our curiosity, forces us to make connections, and thus become even more deeply invested in the story. We get to be surprised and delighted because the creator opened up a form of interactivity to us.
Allow for failure
Getting to see this for the first time, I was RIVETED during the Will/ Little Bill shootout.
A huge reason that I felt so gripped was because of the last line that Will had said to the Schofield Kid. He asked him to give some of the money to his children.
Yeah, ok, this doesn’t sound very exciting, but it allows for something special to happen: it made it possible for Will to die.
With many tense scenes we still expect the lead character to make it to the end. Even when there’s life or death tension, we get excited, but we never feel it too extreme because we know somewhere in the back of our minds that the character is going to be ok.
If the question of “what about his kids” was still somewhere in our heads, we might have felt this same security for Will. But by wrapping this loose-end up, it made it so he could very well die. This caused me to literally hold my breath several times throughout the climax.
That part where Gene Hackman rolled around, still alive: ugh, brutal!
Story is often the greatest safety net for characters. This safety is a bit of an obstacle for creating tension (one of the flaws in any sort of prequel). Even for viewers who don’t actively think about storytelling conventions, they still feel that the characters are protected. But if you make it so the story still can end without the character, then anytime they could potentially die, you’re putting everyone at the edges of their seats.
There’s a very important word in the theme “You should be your own savior too.” It’s the “too.”
One really cool thing that the opening and closing crawls do is tell a complete story. We learn that Will’s mother-in-law never understood why her daughter married that man, and at the end, we know Will’s life turned out fine. Unfortunately, her opinion of him never changed.
With that, the title “Unforgiven” makes so much sense.
We might have shared her perspective at the beginning. All we know is that Will is a killer, so we also wonder why a seemingly cool person would want to marry him.
But by the end, our perspective has likely changed. We got to know Will, and we see the man instead of just the reputation. Whether or not he’s still unforgiven in our eyes, he’s at least so much better understood.
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