Unforgiven is—surprise!—a very violent film.
While there are only a handful of violent scenes ( two savage beatings, two small shootouts, one big shootout), they are so visceral, infused with so much cruelty, that we can't help wincing just a little bit.
The films really does a good job of making a case against violence by showing how brutal it is (remember English Bob's face in the jail cell?) and how ethically complicated killing somebody is. The death scenes of Davey and Quick Mike are especially relentless: one is an exercise in slow death, and the other is cheap and honorless.
While we hate Quick Mike, Davey, and Little Bill, their violent and pitiful deaths make us question whether or not Will Munny & Co. are guys we should admire, despite the fact that they mete out justice.
Violence isn't the way to defeat violence. This is the lesson of Little Bill, whose violent beatings of Bob, Will, and Ned only bring more violence to Big Whiskey.
"I ain't like that no more," Will exclaims on several occasions throughout Unforgiven. The sheer number of times Will makes remarks like this should make us a little suspicious. Just who is he trying to convince anyway? Ned's wife isn't convinced that Will has changed, and while we want to believe him, it's hard, especially given how efficiently and methodically he continues to fire on a wounded Davey Bunting.
Will may have transformed to some extent, but certainly not completely. Unlike Ned, who doesn't have the heart to kill anymore, Will can certainly reactivate his cold-blooded nature, even though he doesn't go back to being a full-fledged killer like he used to be.
Even if we're able to transform ourselves, some vestiges of what we used to be will always remain. Will, for example, still has some of the old Will in him, despite his alleged transformation.
We haven't truly transformed if one terrible thing makes us go back to our old ways. Will, once he learns of Ned's death, immediately goes back to drinking and becomes possessed with a vengeance we thought he had abandoned.
Unforgiven is full of characters who can't escape their past, and Will Munny is right at the top of the list. Various tales about his past misdeeds surface throughout the film, and he tries and tries to escape that life, but ultimately goes back to it.
English Bob arrives in Big Whiskey only to run into a ghost from his past: Little Bill Daggett. The persistence of tales about Will, and the very fact that he ultimately does what he's always done (kill people) suggest a very profound point: the past always manages to come back, however hard people try to escape it, forget, bury it, etc.
The past is hard to pin down. We think we know all about Will's until near the end of the film, when it turns out that his past is much worse (it includes the killing of women and children).
We can try all we want to escape the past but it always finds a way to catch up with us. Will suffers immensely, and Ned dies, in part because Fate is punishing them for their past.
The body count in Unforgiven is high. Eight people die in this film, and Will Munny is responsible for six of these bodies. And, in addition to these literal deaths, there are some figurative deaths (the death of the Kid's innocence, Will's death by illness and resurrection).
Unforgiven, however, isn't just a film that shows us death, but also how agonizing and pitiful it can be. It also gives us some insight into how people fear death—Will Munny has nightmares about the Angel of Death, and Little Bill is baffled by his own murder (he's building a house! he doesn't deserve this!) even as he's bleeding out.
Death is an inevitable fact of life. "We all got it coming," as Will says at one point, with apparently no discernible emotion.
To fear death is to be human, and even the worst characters (Will and Bill) are afraid of death. This proves their innate humanity.