Sunday, June 5, 2016
SPOILER ALERT! The plot of the movie will be discussed.
When one thinks of “revisionist” westerns, this 1992 Oscar winner for best picture is the first film that usually comes to mind. Here, we do not have your John Wayne clearly defined good-guy-vs.-bad guy motion picture where the righteous are rewarded and the evil punished. There is plenty of suffering and blame to go around in this film for most of its characters.
William Munny, (Clint Eastwood, also the director, who came to fame acting in this genre), is trying hard to make a go at being a reformed outlaw, one who was a mean drunkard that, as he later says, “killed just about everything that walks or crawled at one time or the other,” including women and children. His wife, now dead from smallpox, reformed him, sobered him up. But, as the Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett) says, his walking the straight and narrow hasn’t been too prosperous for him. When we first see Will, he is sliding in the mud, trying to separate his healthy pigs from those that have “the fever,” and there are few healthy ones left. This man is obviously not your typical hero of the mythical, (which, by definition, means fictional) Old West. Perhaps he is a Job-like figure, who must be tested by God, or maybe he must experience suffering, including the loss of his beloved wife, to pay for the sins he has committed.
He is trying to take care of his young son and younger daughter when the Kid comes with an invitation to join him in order to collect a reward for killing a couple of cowboys. The reward is offered by the prostitutes of the town of Big Whiskey (the name hints at the moral decay of this world) in Nebraska because one of their members, Delilah (Anna Levine), had her face cut by a cowboy after the woman giggled at the sight of his tiny penis. In the Bible, Delilah is a femme fatale, a woman who takes away Samson’s strength by cutting his hair. In this film, men are satirized for being so preoccupied with their maleness that they commit horrible acts to defend their sexuality. Here, it is the man doing the cutting, but Delilah’s disfigurement is not a reflection of her ugliness, but that of her attacker. The women, although relegated to the profession of prostitution, assert themselves. Alice (Frances Fisher), is their leader. She says that “Even though we let them smelly fools ride us like horses don’t mean we gotta let ‘em brand us like horses. Maybe we ain’t nothing but whores but we, by god, ain’t horses!”
They want justice. But, that attribute is hard to come by in this world. The owner of the bordello, Skinny (Anthony James) is only worried about the loss of income he will sustain since he feels nobody will want to pay for sex with a scarred woman. Unfortunately, Alice gets no satisfaction from Sheriff Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman), who goes along with Skinny, reducing the argument to a matter of property. Since Delilah is “damaged goods,” Little Bill orders that the cowboys pay back Skinny with horses, basically equating, despite Alice’s protestation, the women with horses. Little Bill invokes a double gender standard, saying these men are not bad, because they don’t continuously do wrong things, which, as Alice points out, means they are not like “whores.” The implication is that women providing sex to consenting men is worse than the occasional violence of men done to women. So, the prostitutes pool their money and get the word out that they will pay to have the cowboys killed. In some Clint Eastwood films, (for example, The Outlaw Josey Wales and Absolute Power), the government is not an admirable institution, with those in power abusing the laws that are meant to protect the citizens, causing people to become outlaws (those outside of the law) to fix the damage.
Little Bill represents the “real” West as opposed to the romanticized version of literature and movies. It is probably no coincidence that his name, the “Little” making it sound ironically cute, and Will’s derive from the same proper name. Little Bill is really as bad as an outlaw while pretending to be an upholder of the legal order. Yes, he does try to stop violent crime in his town by not allowing firearms. But, only so he can retain all the power. The ways he treats prisoners is sadistic. One may say he is trying to prevent the killing of the cowboys, but if he had enforced the law fairly, the prostitutes wouldn’t have offered the reward in the first place. It is significant that the house that he is building, as one of the deputies says, “doesn’t have a straight angle in that whole god-damned porch, or the whole house for that matter.” He is as crooked as his home.
Little Bill’s encounter with English Bob (Richard Harris) and the latter’s biographer, W. W. Beauchamps (Saul Rubinek), further demonstrates the debunking of the idealized Old West. English Bob has a superior British attitude toward the United States. After a newspaper tells us that President Garfield was assassinated, he says that a country needs a king or queen, because he says, “the sight of royalty would cause you to dismiss all thoughts of bloodshed and you would stand, how should I put it? In awe. Now a president, I mean, why not shoot a president?” Later, as Little Bill throws him out of the town, he lectures the residents by saying that they have emigrated away from morals, laws, and honor. His elevated condescending speech supposedly upholding a sense of morality is ironic in the face of the reality that he just uses his attitude to justify his willingness to be an assassin, just like the one who killed the president, to collect the prostitutes’ reward.
This ironic contrast is mirrored in Beauchamps’ book title, The Duke of Death, making an outlaw appear to be royalty. Little Bill deflates the author’s version, calling English Bob “The Duck of Death,” and then reveals the accurate, sleazy events of one of Bob’s kills. In the incident, a man named “Two-Gun Corcoran” was so nicknamed not because he carried two weapons, but because the length of his penis was longer than the Colt he used. Again, just as in the attack on Delilah, we have man’s preoccupation with his sexual organ, and, as in Dr. Strangelove, there is a connection between man’s desire for sexual power leading to violence. And English Bob was not defending a lady’s honor, but was just jealous that Corcoran had sex with a woman he lusted after. There was no dramatic face-off between two skilled gunmen. Bob wanted to shoot his adversary before he had a chance to draw, but missed because he was too drunk. Corcoran rushed his draw after Bob’s miss and shot off his toe. Then one of his hands was blown off because his gun exploded. Bob killed an unarmed Corcoran. Little Bill says a real killer doesn’t have to be fast, just cool-headed. After English Bob leaves, Beauchamps remains with Little Bill, now recording the sheriff’s realistic version of history.
Will decides to join up with the Kid for the money. Even his own horse proves uncooperative, causing his rider to fall to the ground. Will, perhaps rightly, says he is being punished for having treated animals so cruelly in the past. The two join up with Will’s old partner in crime, Ned (Morgan Freeman), who has also become a farmer and doubts their ability to do the job. Ned is married to a Native American woman, Sally Two Trees (Cherrilene Cardinal). Notice how her name contrasts with Corcoran’s nickname, Two-Guns. She is another example of the female gender being the one that aspires to a higher standard of life. Her stern look when she eyes Will’s rifle stowed in his saddle illustrates her disapproval of her husband descending into his old ways.
Will tries to convince Ned that their job is just to get a fresh start. He says that they did their type of work for money before. Ned punctures Will’s rationalization by saying “Yeah we thought we did,” implying that they really did their nasty deeds because, underneath, they enjoyed it. But, Ned also tries to buy into Will’s declaration that he’s not the kind of man he used to be. Will says, “I ain’t like that no more … I ain’t no different than anyone else.” But, he keeps having memories and dreams of past actions that haunt him and remind him that he is different. He tries to stay reformed, and refuses whiskey to keep him warm in a rain storm. He again seems to be punished despite his temperance, becoming ghastly ill. His guilty memories increase as he tells Ned that he has seen “the angel of death.” In the saloon, Little Bill continues Will’s penance by savagely beating him for not turning over his gun. He crawls out of the place, and is rescued by Ned and the Kid. Alice accuses Little Bill of “kicking the shit out of an innocent man.” Bill’s response is interesting; he says, “Innocent of what?” Instead of the usual perception that innocence is the norm and guilt the exception, in the topsy-turvy world of this story, guilt is assumed, and innocence is rare.
Will is near death after his illness and beating, and what we have in the following scenes is a sort of dark version of Christ and the resurrection. Like Jesus, Will comes back to life after three days. The first person he sees is the prostitute, Delilah, who Will says looks like “an Angel.” Could she also be considered a version of Mary Magdalene? He now has facial scars, like the woman’s. But, he says to her, “you ain’t ugly, like me, it’s just that we both have got scars.” It could be argued, somewhat like Christ, Will is taking on the sins committed by men like himself. But, this is not a holy environment, and self-sacrifice is not the way to make things right. He is a vengeful spirit.
Will, along with the other two, go off to kill the cowboys. Again, because this film is revisionist, we don’t have dramatic shooting contests at high noon between the opposing combatants, with a quick dispensing of righteous justice. Instead, the movie shows how difficult and agonizing it is to kill someone. Ned shoots the horse their target is riding, and the animal falls, breaking the man’s leg. Since Ned no longer has the stomach for dealing out death, he hands his rifle over to Will, who shoots the crawling man, who dies an agonizing death. The Kid then kills the other man, unarmed, caught literally with his pants down, in an outhouse, reflecting the foul nature of their mission. Because of his male youthfulness, The Kid (aptly named showing his lack of experience, but also named after a type of pistol), first admires Will’s history, the excitement of it, the danger, having been taught that being a man means showing that one is the better shooter. He boasts about killing five men (a lie) because that is what he feels is expected of him. He is surprised that the other two men don’t want to talk about their kills, not understanding how they don’t want to think about the horror they have perpetuated. Perhaps the Kid’s literal nearsightedness symbolizes his inability to see the outcome of the path he is on. After he kills the cowboy, the Kid is shaken. Will sums up how there is no nobility in taking a life: “It’s a hell of a thing, killing a man. Taking away all he’s got and all he’s ever gonna’ have.”
There are a number of times in the film that people state someone else “had it coming.” When Ned hears an exaggerated version of the cowboy’s cutting of Delilah, he says, “I guess they got it comin.’” After townspeople learn that one of the cowboys is dead, a rock is thrown through the bordello’s window. In response, Alice says, “He had it coming! They all have it coming!” In an attempt to clear his conscience and direct guilt outward, too, the Kid says of the men they killed, “Yeah, well I guess they had it coming.” But again, Will presents the big picture by pointing out that everyone must pay for all human crimes when he says, “We all got it coming, kid.”
Ned left the other two to return home but is caught, and Little Bill brutally whips him, looking for information about Will and the Kid, and eventually kills him. His body is grotesquely displayed in a coffin outside the saloon as a warning against “assassins.” When will hears about Ned, he becomes the Angel of Death he dreamed about. The Kid leaves, finally realizing that he wants no part of Will’s life, saying he’s not like the man he first admired. Will goes to the town and kills everyone in the saloon, proving the effectiveness of Little Bill’s statement that the most lethal man is the cool one, or in this case, the person who is ice cold. He spares Beauchamps. Will he write a book about Will, and will it be true or commercially romanticized?
Earlier, while talking to Ned, Will remembered killing a man who he recalls, “didn’t do anything to deserve to get shot.” Just before he finishes off Little Bill, the sheriff says, “I don’t deserve this, to die like this.” Will now understands that when it comes to individual lives, “Deserve’s got nothin’to do with it.” He tells the townspeople to bury Ned in a proper manner and leave the prostitutes alone, or else he will kill every man in town. His deadly skills have been used in a murky way by the universe to perform a demonic correction to the way of things. He may return to his children, move, and prosper “in dry goods,” but he knows he hasn’t stopped paying for his sins. When Little Bill said to him, “I’ll see you in hell, William Munny,” his response was, “Yeah.”
We’ll be skipping a week and then the next film is Dog Day Afternoon.