Okay, so I’ll admit that I have a pretty small sample size, but if these two movies are any indication, I’ve come up with a definition for a Western film: it’s a movie in which women are treated like crap and men live out some crazy revenge fantasy. Hmm… That probably doesn’t narrow it down enough. Also, it takes place in the late nineteenth century in what becomes the western U.S.
Maybe it’s just because I, too, am a woman, but I can’t help but watch Unforgiven wondering more than anything what the deal is with all the women in the story, whose stories are mostly untold. First, we hear tell of two women, never seen on screen – the beautiful young woman who married a terrible man (who hasn’t been there?), and the mother who let her go. The younger woman’s death is what triggers the action of the movie in some way, though she’s been dead for some time already.
Then there are the brothel women, one of whom is disfigured in an attack by another terrible man. Instead of harsh punishment, the local sheriff lets him off because he’s a good cowboy – as long as he pays the male owner of the establishment some compensation. Good thing we don’t have to worry about women getting sexually assaulted without the promise of swift justice these days. Meanwhile, the disfigured woman (who, let’s be real, has a few scratches on her face but is hardly disfigured) becomes a social pariah, because there’s certainly no man who would want to have sex with her, not in a place where there are hardly any women and even fewer hot showers. Her fate is to gaze moony-eyed at Clint Eastwood, who’s far too hung up on his dead wife to ever consider sex again.
Inexplicably, Clint Eastwood’s terrible-man-turned-upstanding-farmer-mourning-his-wife’s-death decides to join a bounty hunt for the cowboy who committed this act, despite all his assurances that he’s not a killer anymore. It’s clear that he’s trying to atone for his previous sins, but less obvious why this is the response that’s going to save his soul, especially when it involves abandoning his kids (and his sick pigs). Along the way, he brings his buddy, who also abandons his disapproving Indian wife, not that she actually expresses her disapproval in, like, words or anything. Just another of the womanfolk, and they don’t have much of a place in the wild west.
We’re supposed to see Eastwood as the hero of the story, because he now eschews violence – though if that’s true, why is he on this pleasure cruise? Spoiler alert: the body count is pretty high in the movie, and Clint doesn’t hold on to his virtue for long. Is this what justice is, after all? You are only as good as you appear in comparison to the guy next to you?
The missing wife doesn’t get a voice – we only see her as the angelic force who mystically transformed Eastwood’s alcoholic criminal into an upstanding citizen. How or why doesn’t matter (to say nothing of who she was as an individual separate from her husband). Nor does it matter, really, that the film finds it necessary to explain to us that the departed wife’s mother returns to visit her daughter’s grave, sometime after her grandkids and their murderous father are long gone. We’re expected to feel sympathy for the woman who’s lost a child, not because she was important herself, but because she married a particular man.
That is the Western story.
First Time Watching? Yes
Final Verdict: Not willing to forgive