In the wild west of the classic Hollywood screenplay genre, there is generally a depiction of the clear lines between good and evil, the heroes and the villains, and the execution of justice. But like life, so often, it isn’t always that simple.
This is exactly the case in Clint Eastwood’s 1992 Oscar-winning drama Unforgiven, in which Eastwood shares the screen with decorated actors like Morgan Freeman and Gene Hackman. Eastwood’s character, William Munny, is an outlawed hit-man turned pig farmer, while Hackman fills the shoes of “Little Bill” Daggett, the town sheriff.
After two cowboys are caught mutilating a prostitute at a brothel, Little Bill decrees they must pay for their actions with cattle, a sentence wholly unsatisfactory to the girl’s co-workers. With nothing more than punitive damages assigned to the criminals, Strawberry Alice, the ringleader of the women, takes up a collection to hire assassins to dole out what she sees as proper revenge.
Enter the broken down William Munny, who operates a fledgling pig farming operation and cares for his two young children after his wife dies. Enticed by the reward despite his age, he joins his old partner Ned (Freeman) and a young man in pursuit of the $1,000 reward for knocking off the two knife-happy cowboys.
The picture is painted throughout the film with the ironic display of good showing up where you don’t expect it, and evil too. Sheriff Little Bill should be the protector of goodness, but instead shows up as a pragmatic and cruel beast, failing to execute justice at the beginning for financial gain, but then brutalizing others throughout the film for what seems like nothing. When men come looking for the whores’ bounty, he beats them to a pulp in the street, obsessed with his own careless biography. If one word fit him like a suit, it would be ruthless.
And then there’s Munny, who admits throughout the opening scenes that he was a horrible man—a drunkard, murderous gunman, and thoughtless killer. He killed men for no reason at all, a fact he comes to lament with a callous indifference. But he insists to Ned, ‘I’m not that man anymore.’ He remains faithful to his dead wife, he appears to be a good father, and proves a good friend to Ned and the boy.
The reality is, life is never as simple as we’d like it to be. Munny is a hero-type, but the kind that is disfigured with sin, shame, and death. After they kill the cowboys, the young man says to Munny, ‘I guess they had it comin,’ to which the wearied older man replies, ‘Kid, we all got it comin.’ Even the “hero” is stained. When Munny looks at the cut up whore, she says she understands why he’d think she was ugly. ‘Miss, we’re all ugly. Hell, I’m uglier than you on the inside for all I done.’
At the end of the movie, when Munny has his Sharp’s rifle aimed at Little Bill’s head, the sheriff pleads, ‘I don’t deserve to die like this.’ Munny, with that famous Dirty Harry scowl, growls back, ‘”Deserve’s” got nothin to do with it.’
Despite the fact that it’s shrouded with profane language and brutality, there is an amazing point being made in the film—life isn’t as simple as direct, 1-to-1 retribution, as if everything that happens in life can be explained by what we did and what happened to us as a result. Because of human sin, even the good guys are marred with blackness and the scars of their deeds. And when the bad men finally die, there is a sadness in seeing their life expire. There’s no simple joy or glory in killing, and the assassin Munny knew it.
Justice, it turns out, is no simple thing, nor are the lives of the men who try to take it into their own hands. Life is messy, complicated, and doesn’t often follow the picturesque themes we draw up in our minds. Even the best men are riddled with sin, while the worst aren’t beyond the reach of redemption. It’s just too simplistic to assume that the good guy wins the day, the bad guys get theirs, and the full weight of justice is delivered in short order. Nice, clean, orderly.
In many ways the film is a parable of broken redemption. There is goodness, friendship, and the reality of change in character, but it’s the kind that’s riddled with sin and suffering and loss. As long as we’re under the fallen order of creation, there is no perfect redemption from what we once were. And until the final day of judgment when Christ executes all matters of justice with perfect equity, we live in the middle of that broken redemption. Many times you don’t get to see the bad guys get theirs, and you realize along the way that you’re lucky not to get what you deserve either, because you are no shining white knight.
I think ultimately it points to the often unseen reality that all of life, for all men everywhere, operates under God’s grace (Matthew 5:45). We do all have it comin, but the only reason we don’t experience that (yet) is because God is merciful. Criminals find mercy next to Jesus on a cross. Bad men get pardoned, while the good moralists get cast off. Prostitutes find forgiveness in the blood of the God-man.
Deserve, at least for now, has nothing to do with it. God has given the opportunity to live under mercy, with the gracious extension of his forgiveness. No one has experienced, yet, the full measure of what he deserves. But you will. Either you’ll embrace Jesus as your redemption and life and treasure, hiding eternally under that mercy, or you’ll decide to stand before God according to what you deserve.
“Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?” (Romans 2:4).