"Unforgiven" tells the story of how the West was lost.
It was lost, as was the East and the South and the North, to pointless, ugly violence, men with guns who couldn't imagine the pain their bullets would cause and had no capacity to conceptualize the vacuum of loss they created when they killed.
It is, in short, the antithesis of all those heroic gunfighter movies and that national anthem of killer as hero. Its characters aren't knights, but mean and squalid psychopaths, cagey as they are obdurate, bitter as snakes and ugly as sin.
Only in its final minutes does it somewhat squander its grip on the moral imagination, in a climax that seems oddly to undercut all that's come before and return us to the hallowed sense of violence as cleansing which so animates the world's true killers.
Clint Eastwood, who produced and directed as well as starred, plays William Munny, a reformed gunslinger or, in the argot of his times, assassin. The movie makes it clear he's less than a paragon: He was a heller with a gun, a back-shooter, unfazed by moral qualm. He could kill anything. Now, reformed by his late wife, he's taken up hog farming on a mud pie of a place somewhere on the vast and dreary prairies of the West, his killing all behind him.
But the hogs are dying of fever and his prospects are narrowing and he isn't getting any younger. When a young cowpoke calling himself the Schofield Kid (for the Smith and Wesson revolver he totes) comes along and tries to sign Munny up for a job of murder and $1,000, the old coot says yes, rounds up a chum (Morgan Freeman) and heads out. Their mission is to kill two cowboys who one night sliced up the face of a prostitute out of sheer cussedness.
What Munny discovers is nothing new to him but everything new to us: that when mortal matters are invoked, everything becomes murky. In fact, Eastwood's visual conception of the West is an expression of the moral funk of his universe: the press of leaden skies on a desolate mud flat where a town has been put, all of it rendered in the sepia of old photos and undistinguished soup.
Nothing is clear. The villainous cowboys don't seem quite so villainous, the sponsors of the reward don't seem so noble, and that paragon of morality, the sheriff, isn't quite so uncorruptable. His idea of law and order founded on the principle that men who have been beaten to pulp are unlikely to break the law.
The movie is definitely old-fashioned, not only in its choice of materials but in its storytelling methods (it was written 18 years ago, before the coming of today's hyperkinetic cutting rhythms). So it sometimes just seems to mosey along, exploring highways and byways, not nearly as sprightly as, say, Eastwood's own "The Outlaw Josey Wales." Its sense of narrative drift somewhat reflects the futility of the mission its central trio has embarked upon.
So lax is the pace that the movie is continually discovering oddballs. The most charming and least relevant is Richard Harris as English Bob, a gunfighting dandy who shows up to claim the reward while radiating disdain for the rowdy colonials. It's a great pirouette of a performance, all foppish style and camera-hogging antics, but when English Bob meets Sheriff Little Bill Doggett he meets his match, just as Harris the actor meets his match in the indefatigably avuncular Gene Hackman, who plays Little Bill and lays such a whipping on English Bob that it sends that poor boy all the way back to Mayfair.
Bill Munny receives a similar drubbing. And so does his friend, Freeman. But Eastwood doesn't go home. He just decides to kill everyone.
This is the most troubling aspect of "Unforgiven." For two hours of its running time, it's an exercise in demythologizing. Great gunhawks are revealed to be fraudulent, golden deeds of the past are shown as bunco jobs, courage turns out to be either a function of too much alcohol or not enough IQ (or both): The whole fable of the West is nothing more than an evil scam.
And the biggest scam artist of them all is Bill Munny, who snipes a wounded, pleading man in one instance and then covers as his partner blows away another man perched on a toilet seat. "High Noon" it isn't; it's more like the darkest midnight of the American soul.
Perhaps the audience's blood lust has been engaged and the weight of Eastwood's man-killing past was too powerful too deny. But it does seem to me that the movie finishes in a flourish that endorses rather than denounces the pulling of guns, makes it seem cool rather than futile. In other movies that have studied the outlaw spirit -- "Bonnie and Clyde," "The Wild Bunch" and even "Thelma and Louise" -- the bad boys, no matter how lovable, have followed the dictates of their melancholy profession, taken their wages and have died.
The Eastwood solution is to yield to box-office formula in a demonic explosion of gunfire that feels straight out of the oldest and most unreflective B-westerns. It's a gunfight at the I-am-not-OK corral, and the movie ends on its most troubling note.
Starring Clint Eastwood, Gene Hackman and Morgan Freeman.
Directed by Clint Eastwood.
Released by Warner Bros.