Hanging fire

Back in the saddle again: Morgan Freeman and Clint Eastwood.

Men have a hard time pulling triggers in Unforgiven (dir. Clint Eastwood, 1992).  That’s something I noticed upon re-watching the film last weekend.  It happens to Ned (Morgan Freeman) at the very moment when he and the other members of his posse (the reformed gunslinger Will Munny, played by Clint Eastwood, and the swaggering, cocksure Schofield Kid, played by Jaimz Wolvett) have their targets in their sights.  “I can’t do it, Will,” Ned says apologetically and with some surprise at himself.  It also happens to Beauchamp (Saul Rubinek), the nebbishy man of letters who, much to his own surprise, is handed a gun by the local sheriff, Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman), and invited to shoot him.  But Beauchamp is too lily-livered, even if shooting Little Bill would mean freeing himself along with his patron, English Bob (Richard Harris), locked up in Little Bill’s jail.  (Beauchamp tries to hand the gun over to Bob instead, but Bob doesn’t dare take it for fear that he’s being tricked by Little Bill.)  Lastly, at the very end of the film, immediately after Will has succeeded in finishing off Little Bill, a couple of Bill’s cronies consider picking off Will as he rides out of town.  They can’t do it either. 

The anxiety around the act of killing is, of course, one of the major themes of Unforgiven and of Eastwood’s late films generally, in which he has symbolically attempted to atone with an almost religious fervor for the ultraviolence of his past.  (Will Munny, too, is atoning for a litany of sins committed in the days before his wife Claudia, now deceased, made an honest man out of him.)  Another way of putting this would be to say that Eastwood’s films from Unforgiven on are almost always about the anxiety over pulling triggers and an equally strong anxiety over not pulling them.  Will Munny, like Jimmy Markum in Mystic River and Walt Kowalski in Gran Torino, understands the sinful weight of killing.  But killing is also a foregone conclusion for these men: there is no other way.  (Only Walt Kowalski manages to devise a way around this impasse in Gran Torino.  He gets his revenge without pulling a trigger, though doing so also means his own martyrdom.)  The films rehearse the weight of violence and the counterweight of its inevitability, dual burdens that Eastwood’s men are made to shoulder.  It’s one of the many tensions that make Eastwood’s films, especially the late works, so richly compelling.

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