"It's a hell of a thing, killing a man. Take away all he's got... all he's ever gonna have."
In the town of Big Whiskey, normal people are trying to lead quiet lives. Cowboys are trying to make a living. Sheriff Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman) is trying to build a house and keep a heavy-handed order. The girls of the town's brothel are just trying to get by. But when two cowboys cut up one of the brothel's girls, who goes by the name of Delilah Fitzgerald (Anna Levine), the prostitutes are not satisfied with Little Bill's justice and put out a $1,000 bounty on the heads of both cowboys, Quick Mike and Davey Bunting.
William Munny (Eastwood) is a Retired Gunfighter, having been influenced by his late wife Claudia into giving up his murderous ways to become a normal farmer, living in peace with their two children. However, he is drawn back into a life of killing when Gunfighter Wannabe the Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett) offers to split the reward on the bounty, and Munny accepts to alleviate his family's financial difficulties. Together with his old partner Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman), Munny and the Kid set off on one last job, and in the process run foul of Little Bill. In the ensuing hostilities, the ruthless demon that laid dormant within Munny is unleashed with a vengeance.
This film won Best Picture. And it deserved to. (Though there was a slight dash of Oscar Bait in there.) It also scored Eastwood his first Oscar for directing as well as statues for the editor and supporting actor Gene Hackman. In 2004, it was added to the National Film Registry.
- Affably Evil: When he's not in Knight Templar mode, Little Bill can be fun to hang around with. He even takes on the writer English Bob brought into town, who is more fascinated with Bill's tales.
- Animals Hate Him: When he cannot mount his own horse, William Munny claims that his horse is taking revenge on him because he was mean with all the animals in his past. See Badass Boast to know how much Munny had mistreated and killed animals.
- Anti-Hero: Also Anti-Villain. None of the main characters are truly heroic or villainous. Except for Ned, who has lost the stomach for killing... and ends up getting killed for it anyway.
- Badass Boast: "Alright, I'm comin' out. Any man I see out there, I'm gonna kill em! Any sumbitch takes a shot at me, I'm not only gonna kill him, I'm gonna kill his wife, all his friends, (and) burn his damn house down!"
- "You be William Munny outta Missouri. Killer of women and children!" "That's right. I killed women and children. Killed just about everything that walks or crawled at one time or another. And I'm here to kill you, Little Bill, for what you did to Ned." Doubles as Oh Crap for the rest of the spectators.
- Subverted with English Bob, who tells Beauchamp these beautiful bad ass speeches when he performed his 'exploits'... only to have Little Bill debunk the claim by noting "The Duck of Death" shot first and In the Back with most of the gunfights Bob himself started.
- Badass Grandpa: While not technically a grandfather, William Munny is more than old enough to be one.
- DEFINITELY Little Bill, who's even older than Munny. Just watch him when he stares down the barrel of Munny's shotgun and calmly tells his men to kill Munny after he's dead. No matter what you think of him, the man has INCREDIBLE balls.
- Band of Brothels - when one of theirs is maimed by a bad john, the working girls pool their resources and put a bounty on the wrongdoers' heads, kicking off the action.
- Being Evil Sucks: Since it's not necessarily obvious: The Schofield Kid has this one pretty bad right before the final showdown Where It All Began.
- Being Good Sucks: Kind of. It's noticeable that during his period of trying to be good, Munny is an unsuccessful pig farmer eking out a wretched existence, is wracked by guilt, and comes across as kind of pathetic (note how often he falls off his horse, his beating by Little Bill). After returning to his old ways, he becomes a scarily effective gunfighter and the epilogue indicates he became financially successful. Not to mention that things don't turn out well for Ned after he admits he's lost his stomach for killing and tries to return home.
- Bittersweet Ending: Munny goes back to his old ways and Ned is murdered, but Munny avenges him. And with the money he earns from the bounty on the two cowboys, he's able to move on and make a better life for himself--rumored to be San Francisco, where he prospered in dry goods.
Closing narration: ...And there was nothing on the marker to explain to Mrs. Feathers why her only daughter had married a known thief and murderer, a man of notoriously vicious and intemperate disposition.
- Black Best Friend: Ned Logan
- Blind Without'Em: The Schofield Kid, though he never owned any spectacles to begin with.
- Bring My Brown Pants: The writer wets himself when English Bob is confronted by Little Bill and his men for bringing a gun into town.
- The Can Kicked Him: The Schofield Kid kills one of the wanted men while he's sitting in an outhouse.
- Celibate Hero: Will Munny stays faithful to his dead wife.
- Chinese Laborer: Apparently, English Bob earned a living killing them for the railroads.
- Chekhov's Gun: Little Bill explains to Beauchamp, at length, about how proper aim trumps speed in a real gunfight. Illustrated bloodily during the movie's climactic gunfight: Munny systematically guns down the men surrounding him while standing still in a cramped bar due to the fact that everyone's so freaked out by his ruthless execution of the owner and Bill.
- Though Munny mentions that it has as much to do with pure luck as anything else.
- Dead Guy on Display: Done with Ned.
- Deconstruction: Of Western movies. Munny himself is a deconstruction of the kinds of characters Clint Eastwood played in the 60s and 70s.
- One aspect of this is how the movie shows Munny dealing with his re-submersion into the violent, dangerous environment he left behind before he became a family man. He doesn't become a more heroic figure, rising to the occasion. Instead, he degrades, with his layers of civility being stripped away until at the end, he's the cold-blooded killer he once was.
- Deliberate Values Dissonance: A major part of the film's goal of de-romanticizing the West: racism (whether against Englishmen, "Chinamen" or "injuns") is rampant, prostitutes are seen as the scum of the earth (Skinny refers to the cut-up prostitute as "damaged property") and an exchange of goods is seen as acceptable punishment for slicing them up. Unfortunately, all of this period-appropriate realism makes the fact that Ned's skin color is not even remarked upon, never mind serving as a plot point, extremely jarring. This was heavily criticized by the film's detractors (Ned was presumably not written with Morgan Freeman in mind).
- The movie takes place in 1881, well after the civil war. At that time, a lot of blacks (many former slaves from the South) were living and working in the American west.
- Dime Novel: W.W. Beauchamp writes these. One example is "The Duck of Death", about English Bob.
- Actually, that's supposed to be the "Duke" of-
- Duck, I says.
- Disproportionate Retribution: Davey, the second of the two cowboys whose actions started the plot, attempted to stop his friend from hurting Delilah and when the two of them came to pay compensation to Skinny he attempted to give her a pony as part of a personal apology to her, which the other whores refused to accept out of anger. The whores put a price on his head anyway and he's killed by the protagonists. With a slow gutshot. After they break his leg by shooting his horse out from under him.
- The whole movie is about this: Quick Mike's cutting up of Delilah for laughing at his small penis. Little Bill's refusal for shedding more blood, instead forcing the cowboys to pay horses to the saloon owner. The whores' sending out bounties on the cowboys, little realizing what kind of bounty hunters that would attract. Little Bill beating the crap out of English Bob, not just as a warning to bounty hunters but for personal reasons. The whores refusing Davey's direct apology and gift to Delilah, leaving the bounty on him for Munny to shoot him. Little Bill whipping poor Ned to death with the saloon keeper displaying the corpse like a trophy. And the final shootout...
Little Bill: I don't... deserve to die like this! I was building a house...
- Driven to Suicide: According to the original script, The Schofield Kid drowns himself out of guilt.
- Even Evil Has Standards: After killing the men at the saloon, when a writer asks him who did he chose first, (in an effort to romanticize the brutal events that Munny committed) Munny rejects him by threatening with death. All the players in the movie were eager to justify their Disproportionate Retribution but Munny: He knows that he did evil things once and he’s doing evil things now, and that for that he will go to hell. He will not try to hide that from himself or anyone else.
- Evil Versus Evil: Starts out as Grey and Grey Morality and gets steadily blacker as the movie goes along.
- Face Death with Dignity: Little Bill
- subverted all to hell with every other death. None of them die cleanly or quickly.
- Famous Last Words: "I'll See You in Hell, William Munny!" ("Yeah..." *shoots him*)
- Gag Penis: As Little Bill tells to Beauchamp, English Bob once killed a man who was nicknamed "Two-Gun Corcoran", though he carried only one gun.
- Gossip Evolution: When the Schofield Kid tells Munny about the attack, he says that the cowboys had cut out Delilah's eyes and cut off her ears, neither of which was true. When Munny tells Ned about it, he adds that they cut off her fingers and her breasts.
- Grievous Bottley Harm: Subverted. Munny attempts it, doesn't work, and he gets his ass kicked for trying.
- The Gunfighter Wannabe: The Schofield Kid.
- Gun Porn: Most westerns depict everyone carrying a Winchester rifle, a Colt Peacemaker, or a double-barreled shotgun (largely due to the use of the five-in-one blank round in movie production). Unforgiven features a very wide selection of old-west firearms, and several are identified by name.
- The Gunslinger: If they're not a whore, they're a gunslinger. Or a writer.
- "What, letters and such?"
- Hooker with a Heart of Gold: Certainly Delilah who is characterized as the sweetest and most innocent of the working girls. Arguably also Strawberry Alice, the 'Big Sister' of the group.
- Imperial Stormtrooper Marksmanship Academy: Discussed, and ultimately Deconstructed. The deputies in the final showdown panic, blaze away at Munny and hit exactly zip. Munny, on the other hand, keeps a cool head and rations out a bullet for each one.
- That said, at the start of the film Munny is a horrible shot, missing a tin can with all six shots at close range. This leads him to bring a shotgun along just in case. It's only after he discovers that Ned is dead, that he gets his old focus back.
- Munny also apparently works best while drunk. He drinks a bottle of whisky (his first in the movie) before entering Skinny's for the showdown.
- Insistent Terminology: Little Bill's insistence on referring to English Bob as the Duck (of Death) rather than the Duke.
- Little Bill and his deputies repeatedly refer to bounty hunters as "assassins" as a kind of insult.
- Instant Death Bullet: Subverted: Munny shoots one of the targets in the gut, and he dies slowly and painfully. A few of his victims after the final shootout can be seen slowly writhing on the floor in obvious agony. Little Bill doesn't die from the first shot either.
- It's Personal
- Karma Houdini: Will is the most notorious outlaw the west had ever seen and he was able to move west without ever really paying for his crimes. He doesn't receive any punishment for the massacre in the saloon either.
- Munny knows full well he's going to Hell for what he done.
We all got it coming, kid.
- Kill'Em All: William Munny's solution to everything.
- Love Redeems: Well, mostly.
- The Messiah: His late wife Claudia was – is – this for William Munny… in all the extension he can be saved.
- Miles Gloriosus: The Schofield Kid. English Bob is shown to be an excellent pistol marksman (shooting birds in flight from a moving train with a pistol is no mean feat), but he has no stomach for actual fighting.
- Morality Chain: Munny's deceased wife.
- No-Holds-Barred Beatdown: Little Bill is extremely fond of them.
- Noodle Incident: Will and Ned often talk about their past exploits and their former gang.
- Subverted a bit in that Munny was drunk most of the time and doesn't remember all the details either.
- Off the Wagon: Munny has quit drinking, but he drinks a bottle of whisky before the final showdown.
- One Last Job: Gone horribly, horribly wrong.
- One-Scene Wonder: Richard Harris as English Bob.
- Technically, two scenes, if you count the earlier scene on the train.
- One Steve Limit: Averted; although it's easy to overlook, both the protagonist and the antagonist have the same first name.
- Ooh, Me Accent's Slipping: A subtle in-character version with English Bob, who puts on a posh accent and gives himself airs and graces, but slips back into Cockney when agitated.
- Oscar Bait
- Pet the Dog: By the end, the entire film feels like one of these.
- After shooting a man, who is lying in agony begging for a drink of water, Will Munny shouts out to the man's friends to "Give him a drink of water for Christ's sake! We ain't gonna shoot!" This might also be a Mercy Kill, since when you have a wound in the guts, a drink of water will end your misery rather fast.
- Platonic Prostitution: Just for Munny, though. His partners readily take "advances".
- Posthumous Character: The Lost Lenore: Claudia Munny was dead before the beginning, but Munny will talk about her whenever he has any chance. At the end of the movie we know how much her character influenced him and the whole story.
- Psycho for Hire: Played with. Munny is brought onto the job mostly for his reputation as one, but doesn't do much to live up to it. But then Bill tortures Ned to death, and Munny demonstrates how he earned that reputation long ago.
- Pre-Mortem One-Liner: Averted when Munny kills Little Bill. Little Bill says "I'll See You in Hell, William Munny" and instead of dashing off a clever retort, Munny simply replies "Yeah".
- Punctuated Pounding: Little Bill gives one to English Bob and later one to Munny.
- Quick Nip
- A Real Man Is a Killer: The whole point of the film is to point out that you'd have to be pretty cold-blooded or crazy to work as a gunfighter.
- Reconstruction: while the movie is primarily a Deconstruction the final fight scene is more or less played straight and Munny isn't portrayed as in the wrong. Word of God says that the movie wasn't so much violence is bad as it is violence is complex and only applicable in certain situations.
- Redemption Failure: Munny is a former badman, who tried to make a go at being a farmer. When his farm fails he decides to take just one more job and for a time goes back to his old ways. (Although it's hinted at at the end that he eventually returned to a mundane life once more.)
- Red Light District: Well, there's a brothel. It does turn up a lot in the film, though.
- Retired Monster: There's a reason why Will Munny is Unforgiven. He doesn't seem to really regret his previous life all that much, except when it comes to his deceased wife. Once he gets a little booze in his system and a gun, Munny goes right back to his old ways.
- It had nothing to do with the alcohol. Munny was pissed at what they did to Ned. The fact that he was taking his first swig of alcohol since his monstrous old days was merely a sign of how bad things were about to get.
- Since Munny is the ultimate evil drunk, that first (and subsequent) swig was literally High Octane Nightmare Fuel--just what he needed to "get in the mood."
- Retired Gunfighter: Both Will Munny and Ned Logan were retired and had families, until the Kid convinced them to come.
- Shrouded in Myth:
- Will Munny. Funnily enough, it seems that the real facts about Will Munny's exploits are more fantastical than the urban legends.
- English Bob is a subversion. While he does seem to have some genuine skills (shooting a bird in flight from a moving train with a pistol is quite a feat), it seems likely that most of his exploits are padded.
- Subverted also when the Schofield Kid is babbling about his kill. "He reached for his gun and I shot him." In truth the dead man had his hands raised, and his gun was well out of reach.
- Which is probably how most of the myths come around. What the kid said was true but he was semi-coherent and missed the middle part (The dead man reached for his gun, his gun moved out of reach as the door opened, he tried raising his hands instead and the kid shot him with his hands raised)
- Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism: Mostly to the cynicism side.
- Saloon Owner: Skinny decides to put Ned's corpse on display (or was told to by Little Bill), prompting Munny to blow him down with a shotgun and deliver one of the best lines of his career: "He should've armed himself, if he's gonna decorate his saloon with my friend."
- A Taste of the Lash: Little Bill captures Ned and wants information, immediately breaking out the whip. Ned does not survive.
- Teeny Weenie: Delilah was attacked by Quick Mike because she laughed at his small penis.
- They Fight Crime: By killing folks.
- Throw-Away Guns: One of the deputies carries three guns for this reason. He has only one arm and would be unable to reload in a fight.
- Well-Intentioned Extremist: Little Bill genuinely believes that what he does is for the greater good. He probably enjoys it a bit more than he should, though.
- The Schofield Kid, arguably: he continually asserts that the two cowboys "had it coming", even while bawling his eyes out from guilt.
- Unusual Euphemism: "Billiards."
- Villainy Discretion Shot: Judging from the details given on their backstories, English Bob, Munny, and Ned did some pretty horrific things in the past. Part of the reason they can remain sympathetic is that those things are only described, not shown.
- The Western
- Where Are They Now? Epilogue: Will took the kids and left for San Francisco where he prospered selling dry goods.
- Wrong Genre Savvy: The writer who follows Little Bill Daggett around seems to think he's in a simple white hats versus black hats world...whereas it's more akin to a World Half Empty.
- Arguably nearly everyone in the movie other than Munny and Little Bill, for the same reason mixed with a lot of ugly truth about reality of actually living in a 1960's Western.