SomeÂ said that Once Upon a Time in the West (1968; reviewed here) left Hollywood with the feeling thatÂ Sergio Leone had done all that was worth doing with WesternsÂ for some time to come. It wasnâ€™t until the early 1990s that anyone would try their hand at picking up the threads Leone had left behind. In rapid succession, Kevin Costner first released Dances with Wolves (reviewed here), and shortly thereafter Michael Mann adapted Fenimore Cooperâ€™s Last of the Mohicans. It was Leoneâ€™s protÃ©gÃ© Clint Eastwood, however, who most closely extended themes featured in Spaghetti Westerns, in this weekendâ€™s movie recommendation Unforgiven (1992).
Eastwood plays William Munny, a man â€œcured of his wickednessâ€ from his days a drunken outlaw and gun-for-hire. Sobriety came ten years ago, only after his late wife and mother to his two children forced him into an honest life. But honesty hasnâ€™t come easily to Munny; every dayâ€™s pig-farming, especially with aching, alcoholic joints like his, takes its toll.
This is why Munny is initially un-interested when a sketchy young upstart styled The Schofield Kid rides to Munnyâ€™s house to propose sharing the bounty for killing some cowboys responsible for mutilating prostitutes. A few muddy trips in the pig sty later, though, and Munny is kissing his kids goodbye for the trip. All that remains is to persuade his former partner Ned Logan, played by Morgan Freeman, to forego his integrity as well, and join in the bounty hunt. Irrespective of whether he succeeds in killing the bounty and collecting his loot, Munnyâ€™s tragic fall is already nigh-on complete after less than a half hour of screen time.
The bounty comes from a group of prostitutes in the town of Big Whiskey, Wyoming. They have pooled their resources to raise the funds, in express disobedience to the townâ€™s sheriff, Little Bill Daggett (played by Gene Hackman), who is a nasty piece of work with a temper to match. Rounding out the cast of characters is English Bob, played in one of the filmâ€™s standout performances by Richard Harris. Bob is a charismatic gun-slinging circus performer who is after the bounty himself, and is chasing after the offending, mutilating cowboys at the same time as Munny, Logan, and Schofield.
Unlike Costnerâ€™s Dances, which is about a protagonistâ€™s positive spiritual transformation through finding a meaningful connection with nature, or Mannâ€™s Mohicans, which is about the erasure of cultural heritage amidst a backdrop of territorial disputes, in Eastwoodâ€™s Unforgiven the Western Frontier itself is instead what drives men mean and angry and violent. The farther Munny travels from his home and children, the weaker and more bitter he becomes.
Itâ€™s a joy to watch Eastwood prod and peck at the persona he cultivated during innumerable films as the canonical nameless drifting murderer. Here, Munny can barely even saddle and mount his horse without making a fool of himself; he feels acute pangs when called upon to fire a weapon; and heâ€™ll evenâ€”shock and horrorâ€”decline the advances of a beautiful woman. Stripped of his bottle and his violence, Munny is pretty useless. Heâ€™s even crippled by a darn cold, for heavenâ€™s sake. Eastwood, it seems, delights in injecting a little pathos into his famously impervious persona (for more of Eastwood doing that, see my review of In the Line of Fire). Yet unlike In the Line of Fire, where Eastwood found comedy in a man reduced to frailty, here Munny is sadly ill-prepared as a pig-farmer, and moreover heâ€™s wretchedly hollow upon returning to bounty-hunting.