November 21, 2008

We All Got It Coming

In a recent edition of Fresh Air, David Edelstein reviewed the new Clint Eastwood movie, Changeling. I have not seen the movie, so I will not comment on his negative review. But I do want to respond to his criticism of Eastwood in general, and in particular the dismissal of his Academy Award winning film Unforgiven.

What disgruntled me about Edelstein's review is that he did not seem to really understand the great depth of a film that went great lengths to eschew action and concentrate on its portrayal of morally ambivalent characters in a society that provides only arbitrary justice.

His chief denunciation of the film stems from the fact that most people have labeled it 'revisionist.' In a New York Times review of another Eastwood film, he writes, "After the town's fanatical and sadistic law-and-order sheriff (Gene Hackman) whips Munny's friend (Morgan Freeman) to death, the gunfighter returns to wreak a holy vengeance -- and this so-called anti-violence western ends with a predictable blood bath. True, it isn't a rousing climax, and Munny is presented as hellbound for having returned to his killing ways. But the greater challenge for the character would be walking away from retribution -- or vainly seeking justice via a higher authority."

A genre picture that breaks new ground subverting the traditional conventions of the genre should rightly be labeled revisionist. Any number of elements can be cited in Unforgiven which mark it as a groundbreaking western, including what I consider its unprecedented depiction of the prostitute characters. Edelstein himself refers to another break with canon:
The movie has many dense and beautifully shaped scenes, but its most harrowing is the one in which Mr. Eastwood's Will Munny, a once-notorious gunfighter lured away from farming and parenthood by a large bounty on two cowboys, finally confronts his prey. Munny's last shot hits the more innocent of the two men in the stomach, after which he must listen to his victim's cries (''They shot me, boys, they shot me!'') and pleas for water. Munny's head drops heavily in shame, and he is isolated in the frame: it is the first time that an Eastwood character has murdered a harmless man on screen, and the acknowledgement seems revolutionary.
Indeed, the movie does end in a spectacular shoot out, as Eastwood confronts a saloon full of deputies single-handedly and emerges unscathed. But William Munny's survival in itself represents a break from traditional action movies. As an audience, we have been conditioned to two types of climaxes in a movie with an outlaw protagonist. Either the hero atones for his past sins and finds redemption through love or some other new found virtue, or the hero dies in the end. Sometimes both.

But in Unforgiven, there is no redemption for Eastwood, nor any of the characters for that matter. Eastwood is not coming out of retirement in order to avenge a slighted woman, but to earn the much needed bounty. In fact, the entire movie revolves around an ambiguously defined moral dilemma, in which Eastwood and his partner are seeking a reward for murdering two cowboys who cut up a prostitute but were allowed to walk free for the price of seven horses. Little Bill, the antagonist, clashes with Eastwood because he does not tolerate gunslingers in his town, and is determined to protect the cowboys from vigilante justice. Who is in the right, and who is in the wrong? One of the beautiful aspects of the movie is that everyone follows somewhere in between, with both flaws and redeeming qualities on full display.

I have deliberated a great deal on why we chose to root for the Eastwood character. What endears him to the audience? He's old. He's a murderer of women and children. It might seem that because he has reformed for the love of his wife, we are attracted to his redemption. Except that as soon as he finds out his partner has been murdered, he takes to drinking again and murders anyone who is even tangentially connected to the event, including the saloon owner where the body is put on display.

I have concluded that the one quality every one of the antagonists shares, and which Eastwood definitively abstains from, is pride. Little Bill is exceedingly proud of himself, and pontificates at great length of his achievements to the journalist. He treats the town of Big Whiskey as something of a personal fiefdom. English Bob is smarmy with his British airs, and mocks the republic for assassinating its president, something that could never happen to a monarch. The Scofield Kid brags about his murder count and adorns himself with false bravado to cover his obvious callowness. All three get their comeuppance in different ways.

But Eastwood, an aging pig farmer, a widower with two kids to feed, does not look back on his outlaw days fondly, and finds nothing in his character or his past to brag about. Perhaps the most sophisticated element in this script dealing with multiple themes threaded neatly through a winding narrative is that what is perhaps the central theme to the movie is never actually acknowledged. I do not believe the words pride or arrogance are uttered even once. It is up to the viewers to discover for themselves.

To look at Unforgiven and see a violent movie that preaches against violence is too miss the point and to ignore the complexity of what I consider one of the all time great scripts. The movie is not trying to condemn violence. Instead, it is a portrayal of law, vengeance, and death in a society where no central authority exists. The only authority is violence or the threat of violence. We see different tribes--the deputies, the cowboys, the bounty hunters, the prostitutes--all trying to protect their own and secure justice when one of their members has been harmed.

Anyone who expects justice to be paid out to all those who deserve it has only to listen to William Munny himself. When Little Bill pleads that he does not deserve to be executed like this, Munny responds, "Deserve's got nothin' to do with it." And when the Scolfield Kid regrets his first actual shooting, lamenting that his victim had no idea it was coming while he was sitting in the outhouse, Eastwood concludes "We all got it coming, kid."

Death comes when it will, not when it is deserved, and eventually it will come for everyone. The irony is that the one major character that death has eluded so far is the character that seemingly appreciates it least.

1 comment:

cathleen said...

have never seen unforgiven (!), but i definitely recommend the changeling..