We don't get the best first impression of William Munny.
In fact, from the very beginning we know immediately that he's not a dude that people like their daughters marrying, to put it lightly. This is what the opening crawl lets us know:
She was a comely young woman and not without prospects. Therefore it was heartbreaking to her mother that she would enter into marriage with William Munny, a known thief and murderer, a man of notoriously vicious and intemperate disposition. When she died, it was not at his hands as her mother might have expected but of smallpox. That was 1878.
Hmm. "Known thief and murderer"? "Notoriously vicious and intemperate disposition"? That's not exactly glowing praise. In fact, the best thing this crawl offers up is the fact that Will Munny didn't kill his wife. By this point we're expecting to meet a psycho with a twirly villain moustache.
And what we get is, instead, a…family man and a farmer.
Here's the thing, though: Will is clearly not cut out to be a farmer. In fact, he's horrible at farming. He keeps trying to herd his pigs, and keeps falling down in the process. His pigs are sickly. Will looks exhausted, muddy, depressed…and totally out of place.
Luckily for Will, the Kid comes along and tells him about a $1,000 reward in Wyoming. The only catch? He has to stop playing with piggies and has to go back to killing men in cold blood.
You'd think this would be an easy choice for a "known thief and murderer" like Will Munny…but he actually struggles with it. His now-deceased wife cured him of his wicked ways and somehow got him to follow a different path. The only problem is that path led him straight to BrokePigFarmersVille.
But Will knows that he needs the cold, hard cash—if not for him, then at least for his kiddos. So he decides to do it—only this time, he says, it's just for the money and not for the thrill of being an outlaw. (Keep telling yourself that, Munny.)
WILL: […] I ain't like that no more. […] Claudia, she straightened me up. Cleared me of drinking whiskey and all. Just cause we're going on this killing, that don't mean I'm gonna go back to being the way I was. I just need the money.
While Will ultimately joins up with the Kid, he just can't seem to get back into the flow of outlaw-hood. He has trouble getting on his horse (a sign that he's now a farmer unused to the ways of the outlaw gun fighter), and something just seems…off. Will doesn't talk much, and whenever the Kid asks him to talk about his exploits, Will keeps his lips zipped.
Sure, Will is on his way to Wyoming to kill some cowboys, but we get the feeling that he's doing this out of pure necessity, that he's not the cold-blooded, evil man that everybody who's ever heard of him claims he is.
This doesn't excuse his actions, but it does give us the impression that Will is unable to— and doesn't want to—go back to his old ways, a fact symbolized by his refusal to drink whiskey (Munny used to get pretty fight-y when he drank).
But then, halfway through the movie, the new-and-improved Munny dies and the bad ol' Munny comes back.
We're talking figuratively, but Munny really does have a near-death experience. He gets super-sick on the way to Big Whiskey, and then suffers a savage beating at the hands of Little Bill. Afterwards, he spends days in a feverish semi-coma. His buddies think he might not make it out alive, and Munny himself clearly thinks he's not long for the world.
While he's feverish, he starts ranting:
WILL: I seen him Ned. I seen the Angel of Death. I seen a river Ned. He's got snake eyes. It's the Angel of Death…I'm scared of dying. I seen Claudia too…Her face was all covered with worms. Oh Ned I'm scared. I'm dying….don't tell nobody. Don't tell my kids, none of the things I done.
But, Jesus-like, Will rises from "death" after three days. Somehow, he seems refreshed and ready to get back to work.
And get back to work he does. When Ned is unable to kill Davey, who's pitifully stranded with broken legs after Ned kills his horse, Will takes over the job without the slightest hint of guilt, hesitation, or anything that a normal person might display.
We sense that he's starting to get back to his old ways—that he has, in effect, been resurrected. Think of it as a kind of anti-resurrection—whereas Jesus came back to humanity, Munny seems to have left it. He seems to have regained his footing as a cold-blooded, soulless killer.
We start to catch glimpses of this old Will when he's talking to the Kid after the Kid kills Quick Mike (on the toilet, no less). The Kid is distraught. He can't believe what has just happened—he feels terrible about having killed someone. Will, who shows no emotion during this powerful scene, is only able to muster the following comment:
WILL: It's a hell of a thing, killing a man. You take away all he's got, and all he's ever gonna have.
What Will says is surgical, objective, anything but sympathetic or emotional. It lacks humanity.
Will's transformation—his anti-resurrection—is complete once he learns Ned has been killed. He returns to Big Whiskey and flatly states that he's going to do some damage:
WILL: That's right, I've killed women and children. Killed just about everything that walks or crawls at one time or another. And I'm here to kill you Little Bill, for what you did to Ned.
Then he goes on a rampage, shooting Skinny, several deputies, and Little Bill. And he does it all with the same detached, sociopathic demeanor.
And when after it's all over he goes over and has a drink of whiskey (read more about this fateful drink over on our Symbols page), a look of quiet unconcern on his face. He threatens Beauchamp and then calmly finishes off Little Bill. When he leaves he threatens anybody waiting for him in the street with the death of their family and friends before riding off.
But Munny doesn't ride off into the sunset like the moral, upstanding cowboys of the world. Nope. Munny ride off into a rainstorm that's as pitch-black as his soul.
If we said "Here's Little Bill" to you, who would you expect to meet? A cute little freckled kid wearing a beanie with a propeller on top of it? A Jack Russell terrier that can turn somersaults? Or a psychopathic control-freak of a small town sheriff?
Yup. Not all is what it seems in the universe of Unforgiven. The guy with the cutest name is, quite possibly, the most vicious dude in the movie.
But when we first meet Little Bill, he seems like a stern but effective lawman. After Delilah's face is cut up, his first instinct is to whip Quick Mike and Davey (the guys responsible for it).
Then he thinks twice and decides to slap a fine on them instead, relying on a technicality of sorts—the prostitutes have contracts with Skinny and are, essentially, Skinny's "property." A couple of things are revealed about Bill at this moment. He seems like the kind of guy that wants to avoid violence at all costs, and he seems to obey the letter (if not the spirit) of the law.
Basically, he seems like a raging misogynist…but he also seems like a levelheaded, cool customer.
And when English Bob shows up in town, Bill calmly and carefully disarms him. He speaks to him in a convivial, gentle tone, explaining the rules and regulations of the town and why it's necessary to take his weapons. He almost purrs his words.
But then, once English Bob is disarmed, Little Bill punches him to the ground and starts beating him. He literally kicks him when he's down, while explaining that he's doing much more than just kicking him:
LITTLE BILL: I guess you think I'm kicking you Bob. It ain't so. What I'm doing is talking to you…talking to all them villains down there in Kansas, talking to all them villains in Missouri, and all those villains down in Cheyenne. I'm telling them there ain't no whores' gold. Even if there was…they wouldn't want to come looking for it anyhow.
Whoa there. What happened to mild-mannered Little Bill?
The thing is, that mild-manned Little Bill didn't exactly ever exist. Instead, he was held in check. As long as Little Bill could exert total control, he was calm. But once people start challenging him, his psychopath flag starts to fly.
Bill can go from being charming, pleasant, even instructive to cold, scary, and violent within a space of about two seconds. This is nowhere better on display than during his first conversation with Beauchamp in the sheriff's office, where Bill encourages Beauchamp to point a gun at him. While Bill is trying to prove a point about the difficulty of using a gun, shades of the violent, unhinged man beneath are clearly on display:
LITTLE BILL: That's why there's so few dangerous men around like Old Bob, like me. It ain't so easy to shoot a man, anyhow, you know, especially if the son of a b**** is shooting back at you.
He enjoys terrifying Beauchamp. And he also enjoys telling a captive audience that he's a "dangerous man."
We think the real source of Little Bill's violence isn't a desire to root out violence or to settle old scores (with English Bob, for example) but some deep, hankering sense of inadequacy that is never overtly expressed.
But it is hinted at.
Remember when Little Bill tells Beauchamp that "Two Gun Corcoran" was named "Two Gun" not because he had two pistols, but because his penis was longer than a single pistol barrel?
Well, we have a little theory that more than one nickname in Unforgiven is, erm, size-based. After all, Little Bill is a pretty tall dude—his nickname clearly has nothing to do with his height. And as we see with Quick Mike, anger and smaller-than-average penises go together (in the world of Unforgiven) like biscuits and gravy.
But even if we've been reading a wee too much Freud and Little Bill's nickname could just have easily have been "Tall" or "Hefty" we still think that Little Bill's psychopathic rage could have something to do with a sense of being a less-than-adequate man.
Check out Bill's carpentry skills—or rather lack thereof. They're mentioned several times, most notably when it's raining and all of Bill's pots and pans are being used to catch rainwater from various roof leaks. Carpentry was seen as being an invaluable man's skill in the West—and Bill definitely lacks this skill. Maybe it's a sense of incompetence that prompts him to such horrific displays of violence.
Or hey: maybe he's just a psycho.
Aww, man. Ned. What is this total sweetheart of a dude doing in a movie like this?
The short answer? Dying.
Ned is Will's longtime friend and former partner in crime. Like Will, Ned has taken to farming in Kansas during his retirement. Also like Will, Ned still has a hankering for adventure.
Will doesn't have to put too much pressure on him to get him to go to Wyoming in quest of a $1,000 bounty. This, however, is pretty much where the similarities end.
Sure, we suspect Ned was once a baddie, just like Will, but it's very strongly implied that he was never as downright cold-blooded as Will. We don't think he'd just kill some guy because he was too drunk to care one way or the other. And we don't think he'd kill a U.S. Marshal, or blow up a train with women and children on it (all things Will has done).
When he says,
NED: We ain't bad men no more. We're farmers.
…we actually believe it.
Late in the film, our suspicions about Ned's goodness are proven correct. Since he's the one who's handy with a rifle, he's entrusted with taking out Davey. He shoots Davey's horse, but then doesn't have the heart to shoot a man whose legs are broken and is trying to get away. After that, he decides to head back to Kansas. Before leaving, he tries to give Will his rifle, a gesture that symbolizes (both for him and for the Kid) his permanent rejection of a life of violence.
More perhaps than anybody else Ned is a character worthy of our pity and our sympathy. He makes the right decision before it's too late, and yet he still pays the price. He's whipped and ultimately killed by Little Bill, even though he doesn't kill anybody and even makes a concerted effort to put that kind of life behind him, once and for all.
Even though it makes sense for Ned to die—his death is a long-awaited punishment for a life of misdeeds—it just doesn't seem fair. "We all got it coming," Will says, but that doesn't make it any less painful to watch.
The Schofield Kid is exactly that: a kid who carries a Schofield pistol.
He's probably around twenty years old if that, and the reason he's not given any other name is because he's supposed to represent any number of generic young aspirants to William Munny or Ned Logan outlaw status.
The Kid is a braggart and a loudmouth if there ever was one. He lips off to Will and Ned as if he's as experienced as they are—or almost, at least:
THE KID: I'm a damn killer myself, except I ain't killed as many as you because of my youth.
When he goes off like this, Will and Ned pretty much just do the ol' smile-and-nod routine.
After he kills Quick Mike in what amounts to a very pathetic death (Mike dies while sitting on the toilet), the Kid suffers a breakdown. He tries to brag and laugh about it, but then he starts sobbing.
Okay, let's be honest. The Kid has really been on our nerves for pretty much, oh, the entire film. He's a cocky loudmouth who is just plain annoying. Once it becomes clear that he can be saved from a life of crime, however, we all of a sudden start to feel bad for hating on him.
Even more than Ned, the Kid has something like a conscience, an idea of right and wrong, and of guilt. Sure, Ned doesn't have the heart to kill anymore, but he doesn't cry about his sins (like the Kid does) and completely reject the outlaw lifestyle in the same way the Kid does:
THE KID: You want it, keep it. I'm never gonna use it again…I won't kill nobody no more. I ain't like you Will…Go on, keep it. All of it. It's yours…I guess I'd rather be blind and ragged than dead.
The Kid, unlike Ned, flat-out casts judgment on Will, God-style.
The Kid suffers from very poor eyesight, and this is a symbolically rich detail. For most of the film he is not only literally quite blind, but morally: he thinks killing is no big deal, and that being an outlaw is cool.
It's only after he kills Quick Mike and suffers a conversion that he learns to "see," a fact symbolized quite obviously when Will urges him to purchase a set of spectacles with his share of the money, a share that he at first attempts not to take, given the remorse he feels for his misdeeds.
And hey; we hope it worked out for him. We hope he got some specs, learned to keep his mouth shut, and went on to lead a very long, very boring life.
English Bob is only in the film for a short period of time, but he's symbolically very important. And no; it's not because he insults the president on the Fourth of July.
In the universe of Unforgiven, English Bob is a legendary gunfighter. Various characters suggest that he has been employed by the railroad companies from time to time to shoot Chinese people that may have gotten out of line (railroad companies employed a very large number of Chinese people for projects like the Transcontinental Railroad).
Bob gets wind of the bounty and comes to Big Whiskey, with his biographer in tow (W.W. Beauchamp). He's deadly accurate with a pistol, as he proves during an impromptu pheasant-shooting contest. He's also not one to give up his guns.
When Little Bill confronts him about this, Bob lies. Bill calls it, and disarms Bob, who tries to go on his way. Bill stops him again because he knows Bob has a second smaller gun tucked away. Bill takes this one as well, and proceeds to beat Bob to a bloody pulp.
It turns out that Little Bill and English Bob have a lot of history together, and while Bob is recuperating in a jail cell Bill destroys the sensational and heroic vision of Bob that Beauchamp has already committed to paper. Bob is a drunk, and when he drinks he's prone to horrific violence. Stories about shooting guys to defend a woman's honor, Bill notes, are completely false. Bob is the kind of guy who will shoot an unarmed man, which he once did.
While Bob is in the film to give us a glimpse of Little Bill's vengeful, violent character, he's also in here as a symbol of the Western genre itself, a genre that often resorts to the kind of sensationalizing Little Bill laughs at in Beauchamp's book. Bill strips away the gilded, heroic surface and exposes Bob for what he is in the same way that Unforgiven itself exposes the Western for what it is, a genre that glosses over the complicated ethical issues surrounding violence.
Bonus English Bob symbolism: when Bob is unruffled, he talks in a crisp upper-crust accent. But when he's excited, he speaks in a lower-class Cockney accent. Yup; pretty much everything about English Bob is fake…apart from his skill with a gun.
W.W. Beauchamp is the character you just love to hate.
The guy's a parasite, a suck-up, and a purveyor of hackneyed, sensationalized accounts of life in the Wild West. When we first meet him, he's attached to English Bob like some kind of spectacled leech (we're not joking). Later, after Bill completely emasculates Bob and exposes him for the violent drunkard that he is, Beauchamp attaches himself to the no less compelling Little Bill, whose adventures he, presumably, decides to commit to paper.
Beauchamp is timid, unused to violence, and absolutely dumbfounded when he discovers that gunfighters like English Bob aren't the heroic defenders of female honor they claim to be. In fact, Beauchamp's cheap, poorly written book sounds like a typical Western movie, especially since it glosses over all the dirty aspects of death and killing that Unforgiven, in contrast, puts front and center. The film, unlike Beauchamp, won't make a hero out of drunks and "men of low character" (Bill) like Bob and Will.
Although he's a complete weasel, Beauchamp can at least be applauded for possessing some small amount of intellectual courage. Once his initial ideas about the Wild West are completely exploded during a conversation with Little Bill, it would have been easy for a lesser man to leave and forget the whole thing.
But Beauchamp at least decides to stick around Big Whiskey, and learn about the reality of the frontier. In a way, then, he does commit himself to trying to get it right, even though he seems to idolize Little Bill a little too much at times.
But hey: what would this guy even do without somebody else to cling to?
The prostitutes that work at Greely's (Skinny's billiards hall) play a pretty big role in the plot…even if they're best viewed as a collective force and not as individuals.
In fact, they're the first characters we meet in the film. After Delilah is cut, the women pool their money together and put the word out that they will pay anybody who kills Quick Mike and Davey $1,000. It is as a result of this bounty that the Kid comes looking for Will Munny, who eventually decides to come out of retirement.
Also, it's because of the prostitutes that Ned and the Kid are given a temporary safe haven and that Will is able to recover sufficiently so he can do the job. Let's not forget that it is also one of the prostitutes who tells Will what Little Bill has done to Ned. It could be argued that without this crucial piece of knowledge, Will wouldn't have learned of Ned's death until returning home to Kansas, if at all.
Basically: without the prostitutes, there would be no plot.