One night in a small town, local ranch hands are visiting the local whorehouse. One of the ranch hands becomes enraged with the girl he is with and brutally attacks her, leaving her scarred. When the Sheriff, Little Bill, arrives, he sets the penalties for the ranch hand. The Madam, Strawberry Alice, finds his verdict horribly insufficient. They start to pool their money to hire a gunslinger to kill the man.
Elsewhere, we meet Will Munny. He is a pig farmer with two kids. When a young man calling himself the Scofield comes to try and recruit him for help with killing the ranch hand, Munny explains he does not live that way anymore. His late wife cured him of drinking and his evil ways. But the lure of much needed reward money cause him to rethink his refusal. Bringing along (much to the Kid’s annoyance) his friend Ned, they start to make their way to the town. Meanwhile, Little Bill has discovered the prostitutes’ plan. He makes it clear that nobody will be allowed to kill the ranch hand.
Gene Hackman’s Little Bill is both charming and scary. A former outlaw, he brutalizes an old cohort named English Bob. Bob is followed by a writer who puts his exploits into tabloid books. He starts to be won over by Little Bill, who humiliates English Bob by revealing the truth behind the stories English Bob told the writer.
When the film came out, many people expressed discomfort watching Eastwood struggle to get on a horse or fire a gun. But this is a strength of the film. Unforgiven is an exploration of the effects of violence. As things spiral out of control, Bill finds it harder to fight the darker nature he has put aside all these years.
The Scofield Kid is exuberant and excited, claiming to have killed several men. Munny, of course, sees right through him and has little patience for the Kid’s bravado. Eastwood is not interested in presenting violence as a heroic act. When Munny proves himself to be every bit the frightening killer the Scofield kids expects him to have been, it is tragic. As much as you the viewer may desire to see Little Bill pay a price, it comes at a great cost to Munny.
Personally, I consider Unforgiven to be one of the all time great westerns.