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Eastwood: Go Ahead, Punk; Go Ahead, Clint

by Greg Wahl--page 3

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In Unforgiven, the Eastwood-produced and directed "revisionist western," his Will Munny is another ex-drunk, this time an aging gunslinger who was at one time one of the meanest men in the West, "a man of notoriously vicious and intemperate character."

Clint Eastwood as Will Munny in Unforgiven.

As the movie opens, Munny lives in near-complete abjection, rolling around in the muck trying to eke out a living as a pig farmer. Even as he decides to go on a mercenary mission (morally justified by the fact that his victims had "cut up a whore," perhaps a comment on what O'Brien notes is a pattern of sometime Eastwood partner Sondra Locke being assaulted in his movies) to earn the money for his children's future, he repeatedly insists that he's "not like that no more," that he's "a regular guy now, just like anyone else." This turns out to be not quite true, of course. After his partner Ned, played by Morgan Freeman, is whipped to death and placed on display outside a saloon (shot by Eastwood with a squirm-inducing, infuriating directness that cannot help but conjure up too-recent photographs of lynch mobs offhandedly posing with their victims), Munny reverts to his old tricks and blows away the men responsible, along with anyone else who happens to be in the vicinity.

Before shooting Ned's killer, the whacked-out, brutal sheriff Little Bill (Gene Hackman), Eastwood intones, "that's right, I've killed women and children. I've killed everything that walks or crawls at some point. And now I'm here to kill you." And after the killing he surmises that he's "always been lucky when it comes to killing folks." If the movie comments on itself as an Eastwood vehicle, this scene, not the PC trappings, is the key point. It's another admission/assertion that Munny, like Eastwood, isn't like everyone else after all, he's special. Like Callahan's, Munny's specialty resides somewhere in the baser parts of our imagination, the part that helps, from time to time, to suspend our civilized rationality. Munny, however, is not as transparently or thoroughly a good guy as Dirty Harry. Wounded and waiting for the point-blank shotgun blast that will finish him, Little Bill says to Munny, "I don't deserve to die like this. I was building a house," to which Munny replies, "deserves got nothing to do with it." Certainly Little Bill deserves to die, but the line implies that this killing isn't entirely dissimilar from the others in Munny's past, when he slaughtered for money in a drunken haze. The image of Eastwood as an avenging angel is further deconstructed when, with his last breath, as Munny is cocking the hammer, Little Bill tells Munny he'll see him in hell. "Yeah," says Eastwood with the patented sideways jaw-flex. Then, blam! On the way out, he sees another of his victims (some of whom he had shot in the back as they tried to escape) move and, without breaking stride, gives him a blast, too.

This version of the Eastwood vigilante is placed in a context that precludes complete moral justification, and in fact demands condemnation, and in turn, we cannot help but be aware of our own impulses when we still root him on. It is, finally, a moment of acknowledgment, of trust and respect, given to the audience by our star. He lets us know here that he knows we don't need or want to be tricked, that we are aware of the implications of our viewership. He lets us choose the violence, in a sense.

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