Script-O-Meter rating: 9
Premise: Retired Old West gunslinger William Munny reluctantly takes on one last job, with the help of his old partner and a young man.
Designing Principle: Shall a man honor the law of the land/society or allow his basic human instincts to dictate his behavior.
Although marketed as Drama/Western, this is really a story about a Hero that the writer has imbued with elements of Mythology. For the Western is really the American Myth story.
The Hero in Myth starts out reluctantly on a physical journey, only to return home a man changed forever. The physical journey represents the internal emotional journey of the Hero in the genre of Drama.
Story World here represents the emotional, flawed inner world of the Hero. The West is changing- It is an irrevocable change. Many writers have glorified The Old West and simplified the moral dilemmas that people were faced with- a romanticism of sorts, where the white man was evil and the Indian and nature were pure – The evil vs. the pristine.
Not so with Unforgiven. The elements of Drama are the intimate moral dilemmas of each of the characters. The stereotypical romanticized old West does not play in this story. Each character has a decision to make: Shall I honor the law of the land/society or shall I allow my basic human instincts to dictate my behavior.
The sheriff decides to use his badge to unleash his basic instincts for brutality- But he uses this same badge to proclaim that this here town won’t tolerate vigilante justice. This here town follows the law.
The scriptwriter has given a great deal of thought to the moral dilemmas and choices of each opponent in the story. That is a huge reason this story works so brilliantly. Each opponent has made a choice: The pimp treats his girls like baggage and makes money off his chattel in the bargain. A defaced whore loses dollar value to the pimp. The Main Opponent, accurately named Little Bill (he is big and brutal), is building a house that leaks and that has as many flaws as he does. He builds a house to simulate the future, but his brutality and desire to manipulate through fear override civility.
Also, each opponent works to block the Desire Line of the Hero. This becomes a punch-counter punch between Hero and Opponents. By crafting opponents who are strong and who constantly, if not obsessively punch at the Hero, the story line builds, tension builds, and that Narrative Drive, so important to any genre, builds. And then in the Climax/Battle…Boom! With exposition and a changed character arc in the Hero, everything blows between Hero and multiple opponents. It’s totally believable because the writer has crafted Opponents who each have made a moral decision regarding the crime committed in the first few pages of the story.
The defacing of a prostitute: What does this represent? Loss of income to her pimp. For the prostitute, a woman who sells her body, she now feels that her soul has been crushed. To the Hero, who has just buried his wife, the crime represents a time of reckoning: He is a deeply flawed, unlikeable character, albeit Mr. Clint Eastwood. He not only wants to bring the bad guys to justice. He struggles with his own inner demons.
The Hero states the Tagline over and over (paraphrased): I used to be this way (evil), but my dear wife, she kept me on a straight path. I used to drink. But not anymore. I used to steal. But not anymore. I was a bad person. But not anymore. Shakespeare said it best of Lady Macbeth (paraphrased): Methinks the lady doth protest too much.
So the writer has crafted a deeply flawed, unlikeable Hero with Myth elements to his journey, and his Desire Line of going for the bounty because his family needs the money becomes a much more profound Desire Line, along the lines of the Drama genre: To reckon with his soul. For the Hero understands that this bounty is not being offered by the lawmakers- This bounty is being offered by the victims of the crime, the prostitutes. The law, in other words, is lawless. Values are upside down. All Opponents have made their moral choices.
The Morality Play, a popular allegorical Drama genre in the 15th century, was an anomaly. For Europe was plagued by a time of lawlessness, disease, abject poverty. Kings reigned over peasants; bestiality was commonplace. The Story World of Unforgiven is much like a Morality Play: Dark interiors; characters in the shadows; characters who have decided to live and accept leadership by a barbaric sheriff.
It is the Designing Principle of this story that so powerfully moves the characters in the Climax/Battle Sequence: Shall I honor the law of the land/society or shall I allow my basic human instincts to dictate my behavior.
Morality in a world of barbarism is the theme of Unforgiven. Blending Myth/Drama/Western is an embodiment of this theme. The Western, therefore, is a misunderstood Genre, if it could be called a genre at all: It’s really a sub genre of Action with elements of Mythology. Myth has been around for thousands of years. It is a universal art form, received by worldwide audiences with archetypical characters. Unforgiven is a brilliant blend of the aforementioned genres, and it is also Mr. Clint Eastwood at his quintessential best.