Mark Overanalyses Film


April 24, 2023 Season 3 Episode 4
Mark Overanalyses Film
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Mark Overanalyses Film
Apr 24, 2023 Season 3 Episode 4

It's a hell of a thing, overanalysing Unforgiven, as Mark tries to figure out what makes the film the definitive revisionist Western, how it uses symbolism so powerfully, and if Bill might be nicer if people stopped constantly calling him 'little'.

Show Notes Transcript

It's a hell of a thing, overanalysing Unforgiven, as Mark tries to figure out what makes the film the definitive revisionist Western, how it uses symbolism so powerfully, and if Bill might be nicer if people stopped constantly calling him 'little'.

Hi everybody, and welcome to Mark Overanalyses Film! Today, I am looking at one of the all time greats in my view: 1992’s Western: Unforgiven.

Before I begin, allow me to remind you that I am available for story coaching and reading at

Unforgiven was directed by Clint *checks notes* Eastwood and written by David Webb Peoples, who should probably be more famous than he is considering his IMDB. Anyways, I’m interested in studying Unforgiven for a few reasons, the main one being that I think it’s brilliant. But also, there’s something so spare but rich about it. The script was originally written in the 70s and I think you can see that. The scenes are very defined, it really takes its time, and it shares an ambivalence about a message that is a trademark of that time. And to be honest, it annoys me a little that so much conversations about this film dissolve into an actor discussion on the career of Clint Eastwood. This film is brilliant because the screenplay and the filmmaking are brilliant! Also, I don’t know where else to say so I’ll just say it here: for fans of The Last Of Us, I think it’s interesting to note that Unforgiven was a huge influence on creator Neil Druckman. You can see this in how it depicts violence, how it spends time with both the protagonist and antagonist and shows their points of view, and you can really see it in a final deleted scene where a child is lied to, which I’ll talk about later.

So, with all that in mind, and to figure out what makes this film just so damn good, first, I’ll look at the fundamental features of the protagonist, and then I’ll go through the main story beats by looking at the sequences of the film. Then, I’ll talk about the main things I learned along the way.

The 5 Questions

Question 1: Whose story is it?

Or, who is the protagonist? Well, this is undeniably the story of Will Munny: a man of notoriously vicious and intemperate disposition. Or at least he used to be. Now, he’s a pig farmer, widower, and father. And he’s struggling at all 3. 

Question 2: What is their life dream?

Life dream here refers to what it is that the protagonist wants or is aiming to do when the film begins and the story has yet to properly start. Before the incidents of Unforgiven begin, Will’s plan is probably some variation of: do his best on the farm to provide for his kids. That will all change though with the arrival of the Schofield Kid.

Question 3: What is their ‘want’?

Want here is what the character is trying to achieve in Act II of the film, from the moment they really begin their journey until the moment they are at their most defeated. The whole point of this is really to give the character something to do and to give shape to the story. As such, the Want is a SMART goal, in that it is Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time bound. And I love it when this happens: the Want in Unforgiven is incredibly clear. 25 minutes in, William Munny and his partner Ned Logan take off to kill two cowboys for money. 20 minutes from the end, they do it. And in between, this is clearly their main objective. 

Question 4: What is his ‘need’?

Need is the human quality or piece of wisdom that the character lacks at the beginning of the story. Now, this is what really lifts Unforgiven into an entirely different level of film to most genre films. What is Unforgiven, tonally? Is it a tragedy? It’s certainly not a ‘happily ever after’ story. It’s kind of ambivalent, I think. But, overall, I think this is more of a downfall film than not. And as such, Will Munny doesn’t have a Need so much as a Flaw: a failing that takes him away from that piece of wisdom that he can see but can’t achieve or maintain. And that flaw is the belief that he is unforgiven. He has fallen, there is darkness inside him, and he cannot change that. He is hoping for redemption, but deep down we feel: he doesn’t believe in it. I’ll talk about this as we go through the film.  

Q5: Does the main character get what they want and/or what they need?

Will does get what he wants in killing the two cowboys. But he does not succeed in achieving his Need, or resisting his Flaw. And that is what gives this film its dark, sombre, melancholic ending. 

Ok, now that I’ve attempted to answer the 5 key questions, let’s have a look at Unforgiven’s sequences. 


The Sequences

There is normally, but not always, 8 sequences, or stages, in a film. A sequence is a combination of scenes that are tied together by having a single overriding dramatic question or tension, and they tend to be between 10 and 15 minutes in length. A good way to think about it is that every 10-15 minutes, the audience should be on some level asking themselves a different dramatic question. 

Act I:

Act I has our first two sequences, and the first one is always pretty much “life as it is”. Now, I have to pause right out of the gate here because the opening shot of Unforgiven is goddamn gorgeous, and we’ll come back to it later. As the sun sets, and William Munny digs his wife’s grave in the distance, a crawl tells us that this guy was a real piece of work until his wife came along. And now she’s dead. So, that’s a little worrying. But we’ll come back to that. For now, we have to travel to Big Whiskey Wyoming, where we immediately have our inciting incident, or the event without which our story as it is would not happen. I love it when a film gets right to it like this. So, the unfortunately named Quick Mike has a teensy little pecker. I dunno, maybe if it’s that small, there’s not much point in taking your time. Anyways, Quick small-penised Mike cuts up a prostitute named Delilah for giggling at his modest appendage. The sheriff is called. And, ironically, despite actually being quick, he’s called Little Bill. No wonder he’s a mean bastard. Little Bill decides to whip Quick Mike and his partner, but bar owner and pimp Skinny says that simply won’t do. It turns out he considers Delilah his — now damaged — property. Jesus christ, this film is grim, and we’re only 4 minutes in. So, Little Bill decides to fine them rather than whip them. Ironically, the one time Little Bill does not use violence, it backfires. If he had listened to the Madam, Strawberry Alice, and whipped them, this whole thing would probably have been averted. But he doesn’t. So, the following morning, the prostitutes pool their money and decide to put a bounty on the two cowboys. 

At that, we see William Munny being terrible at farming pigs as he’s approached by the Schofield Kid. To this day, I do not know how this actor got to be in this movie, but I guess the character is meant to be annoying, and, well, mission accomplished. But this is important: The Schofield Kid tells Munny, and us, about the stories he’s heard. That William Munny is the coldest, cruellest piece of work going. And that’s why he wants Munny to join him on his mission to kill the two cowboys for a thousand dollars. That’s somewhere in the region of 29000 dollars today. Munny refuses, insisting that his wife cured him of his drinking, and the rest of his wickedness along with it. But we can’t help but wonder: does he really believe that? 12 minutes into our story, The Schofield Kid rides off and tells Munny that he can catch up to him if he changes his mind. And, as he discovers that much of his livestock is ill, Munny is clearly tempted. Our protagonist’s status quo has been disturbed, and so we enter sequence II now that we have our first real tension of the film: “Will William Munny decide to join the Schofield Kid and murder again?”.    

So, sequence II begins with Will really having already decided to go, but he has to make preparations. At the same time, in Big Whiskey, the whores are making their displeasure known as the fine of 7 horses is given to Skinny. Now, it’s important to note here that the film goes out of its way to show that Davey, the guy with Quick, groinally aerodynamic Mike, seems decent. He was not directly responsible for this, but has brought his best pony to give to Delilah. However you feel about Quick, micro-membered Mike, Davey does not deserve to die. But the whores, and Strawberry Alice in particular, are not for soothing, and they drive Davey and his pony away. Which is hardly smart. But then, if they accepted the horse, it would really hurt their justification for killing him, and as we’ll see throughout, justification is a huge factor in Unforgiven. Now, there’s something else to quickly note here: I’ll be talking about this much more later, but it is at this juncture that we are told that Little Bill is building his own house. This is massively important for the simple, elegant, rich symbolism that really raises Unforgiven to great heights. But anyways, Will Munny arrives at his old partner Ned Logan’s place. And just like Will, Ned initially refuses, but can’t resist the money. And so, at minute 26, Will and Ned set out to catch up to the Schofield Kid. They have begun their mission, and so we end Act I and we enter Act II.

Act II begins with sequence III, the first attempts to solve the problem. Now, I need to stop here for a minute to explain a little about the second act of Unforgiven. One of the reasons why it’s just so damn good is that at the same time, we have practical, thematic, and symbolic developments. And we’ll see this through the sequences. So, sequence III has 2 tensions really. For the first half of this film, Will’s story is pretty limited. It really acts as a kind of exoskeleton, which is not uncommon. 13 minutes in, Will learns of the mission. 25 minutes in, he convinces Ned to do it. 40 minutes in, they convince The Schofield Kid to split the bounty 3 ways. And one hour in, at the midpoint, they arrive at Big Whiskey. So, in sequence III, Will and Ned are trying to catch up to The Schofield Kid. Which is not that interesting. Or at least, doesn’t hold much tension. So, at the same time, we visit Big Whiskey, with the arrival of English Bob. And we wonder the far more interesting tension: “Will Little Bill confront English Bob?” But again, there is thematic movement throughout this sequence. Sequence III is not only the first attempts to solve the problem, but also what we term “the refusal of the call” sequence. And so, at the start of the sequence, right at the top of our second act, Will tells Ned, and us, that he ain’t a crazy son of a bitch no more. Which of course only raises the question for our second act if this is really true. But there is also a subtly important scene when English Bob and his biographer Beauchamp arrive in Big Whiskey. The deputies get together, nervous as all hell about confronting the infamous English Bob. But where is Little Bill? He’s not there. He’s building a house. Our protagonist and principal antagonist are both resisting the call to violence. But as Little Bill’s deputy points out: Little Bill’s not scared, but he sure ain’t no carpenter. And so, this sequence ends with the acceptance of the call, or the protagonist’s first UNconscious move towards their Need. And so, the last thing to happen here is that Will and Ned are reintroduced to violence. They get shot at before strong-arming The Schofield Kid into splitting the bounty 3 ways. But just before this, we have Little Bill really introducing the theme of extreme violence into the story. He kicks the absolute shit out of the now unarmed English Bob. It’s a brutal scene, and is the first real sign of what is to come. And it’s worth noting that the film makes play with the fact that Little Bill seems to relish the violence. But, unlike in the original screenplay, he then appears to become embarrassed — as if the mask has slipped and he realises everyone has seen that it is indeed a mask. But anyways, we are now wondering if Will & co will arrive in Big Whiskey and if Little Bill will kill English Bob. We have new tensions, and so at minute 48 we enter sequence IV.

Sequence IV is the greater attempts to solve the problem, and everything has gone up a notch. And so, you’ll notice here that immediately there are signs of trouble. Because not only is there rain coming, but the moment Will sees it, he swears for the first time in the film. This, after making so much of not cussing in the first 3 sequences. The mask is beginning to ever-so-slightly slip. But what follows is a couple of scenes that arguably are most openly or directly in discussion with the underlying themes of Unforgiven. Little Bill disabuses Beauchamp of the delusions of gallantry that English Bob has been feeding him. His past was a lot murkier than he has been suggesting. At the same time, Will and Ned are trying not to think about their own murky past as The Schofield Kid probes them on the stories he’s heard. Now remember: 25 minutes ago, Will basically couldn’t convince himself that he wasn’t an evil bastard anymore when Ned was completely compliant. Now, the scene is echoed, but of course, it requires greater effort. The Schofield Kid is now there and Will not being a cold-blooded killer is the last thing he’s interested in hearing. Now, we’re really approaching the midpoint of the film here, or the protagonist’s first conscious move towards their Need. So, everyone is becoming more and more violent. In the prison, there is little reason for Little Bill to descend into violence, but he has a taste for it now. He dares Beauchamp, and then English Bob, to try to shoot him. And note, when neither man can bring themselves to do so, he looks out the window and states “We could do with some rain, Mr Beauchamp.” Now, there’s something else to note here quickly. Again, we’re right around the midpoint, and the midpoint almost always foreshadows the climax. And so, Little Bill describes what makes someone good in a gunfight. And it is exactly what Will Munny will do 50 minutes later. And now we’re really close to the midpoint, so it is bucketing down on Will, Ned, and Schofield. And what is Will doing? Swearing up a storm. He is regressing. Slowly, but surely. And at that, we hit our midpoint, or the protagonist’s first conscious move towards their Need, as 65 minutes into a 120 minute runtime, William Munny (and the rain) arrive at Big Whiskey. William Munny has arrived at his destination, violence is brewing, and I’m wondering “Will William Munny encounter Little Bill?” And so, we enter sequence V: the honeymoon sequence. 

A quick note here: some people have accused Unforgiven of being slow, especially at the start. Now, I don’t really find it to be the case, but I can see why it could be accused of that. And I believe the reason is that, well, his first unconscious and conscious moves towards his Need, or Flaw, are not that dynamic, are they? He met up with The Kid and then arrived in Big Whiskey.Hopefully, I’ve shown that Will has been gradually changing, but up to this point it is quite gradual. And the decisions he’s made are not that compelling. Really, from minute 15, his journey is set and it’s pretty straightforward. Now, the film really addresses this issue by focusing so much on Little Bill, and allowing him to progress the film’s story arc thematically. But it’s when these two meet, at the film’s real midpoint climax that all that changes.   

Anyways, the honeymoon sequence is so called because it’s where the protagonist starts experimenting with their Need and is rewarded for it by things going well for a while. But that’s in a film with a “happy” ending. And this is Unforgiven. So, rather than Will Munny beginning to learn the error of his ways, he is feverish with sickness from the rain, he lands in a bar surrounded by the alcohol he is desperate not to drink, he gets left alone by his companions, and then Little Bill arrives and kicks the absolute shit out of him. It’s worth noting though that this so clearly foreshadows the film’s climax. It’s in the same location and displays hideous violence. Will also refuses to surrender his weapon despite the overwhelming number of deputies. But perhaps more intriguingly, Will doesn’t drink and denies his own nature by denying his own identity. And he gets beat to within an inch of his life for it. I guess he won’t be doing that again. For now though, having been crippled by ferocious violence, he crawls out of the bar for his life into the driving rain. At minute 77, Ned tends to his wounds, and we wonder if he’ll survive, and so we enter sequence VI: the bridge from the honeymoon to the low point. 

  Now within this sequence, or stage if you prefer, there’s probably a couple of mini-sequences. And again, just to point out: in a happy ending, things would start trending down here, but in Unforgiven, they start trending up. Never a good sign. So, in our first mini-sequence here, Will is slowly recovering, but it doesn’t look good at the start. And the film’s counterargument really comes back into view. Remember, Will Munny has agreed to kill cowboys for money because he’s justified it to himself that they have it coming. But now, on what might be his deathbed, he becomes terrified of dying, and ashamed of the things that he has done. Then, when he comes-to days later, he sees that Delilah is cut up, but hardly as initially described. And he now appreciates the beautiful nature around him. Finally, when Delilah suggests a “free one”, because at least one woman has to try to sleep with Clint Eastwood in a Clint Eastwood film, Will brings to mind his wife and how she would disapprove. Her memory might hold sway over him yet. 

But then, we move to our next mini-sequence, as Will, Ned, and the Kid begin their mission in earnest. Now, it might seem odd that I would argue that Will is moving away from his flaw here as he’s involved in killing these 2 cowboys, but he can still justify this and the closer he gets to killing these two without losing control, the more it seems he will not lose control at all. There is a real tension throughout though, as the truly ignoble scene of killing the well-meaning Davey-boy is followed by Will openly and callously calling the Kid full of shit. And this is as Ned decides he can’t follow through with the second murder, which is ultimately going to be his undoing. Heading off alone, he gets captured. And as Will and The Kid scope out their second victim, Ned is brought in and tortured by Little Bill. And you can sense it, can’t you? Things are coming to a crescendo. Will and the Kid are going to kill again, and Little Bill, embracing his sadism, is going to find out who Will Munny really is. However, soon The Kid shoots Quick Mike, whose small penis appears to slow him down in the toilet, and William Munny has succeeded in his objective. All he has to do now is collect the money and go home. Things are looking good. And so, with 19 minutes left, we end act II, and we enter Act III.

Act III has a false resolution and a true resolution. And man alive, I love both here. What I love about the false resolution here is that it is all one long 7 minute scene that features a complete transformation in real time. As the scene begins, Will has completed his mission, and has retained his control. Also, the third act of this film is just riddled with amazing lines. Such as when The Schofield Kid begins to unravel, and Will Munny utters the iconic line: It’s a hell of a thing, killing a man. You take all he’s got, and all he’s ever going to have. But perhaps more importantly, the Kid says “I guess they had it coming”, to which Munny replies: “We all have it coming, kid.” A suggestion that he now believes there was nothing unusually bad or wicked about these men, and/or that he is unforgiven. Irredeemable. And so, when he discovers that Ned has not only been murdered, not only been publicly shamed by having his body displayed at the tavern, but that he was murdered for what Will and the Kid did, William Munny fully retrenches to his old ways. He picks up the bottle of booze, and demands The Schofield Kid’s schofield. And so, with 12 minutes left, we enter Unforgiven’s emphatic true resolution. 

And once again notice, unlike the calm false resolution, but just like during the original violent crime, and just like the midpoint when Little Bill met and beat William Munny, the rain is once again lashing down. And you’ll notice that the first time we see Little Bill lay eyes on William Munny, there is a clap of thunder. This man, unfettered, is a force of nature. Chaotic and uncontrollable. He shoots the unarmed bar owner, and proceeds to slaughter every armed man in the place. And again, he does so by doing exactly what Little Bill described just before the midpoint of our film. 12 minutes ago, Munny stated that we all have it coming. Now, he stands over a wounded Little Bill, and they have an incredible back and forth. [] At that, William Munny leaves town. And in Unforgiven’s typical ambivalence, once he has murdered half the town and terrified the others, he commands them not to mistreat the whores. Now, I think it’s worth briefly noting here that there’s a deleted scene right at the end of the film. William Munny returns home and has a tender moment with his kids. But his son, once alone with him, asks him nervously if he murdered someone for that money. William Munny denies it. And there is a question as to just how convinced his son is by this. But either way, that doesn’t change the fact that when his mother-in-law visits the grave of her daughter some time later, she still has no idea why her daughter married a man of notoriously vicious and intemperate disposition.


Man alive, what a film. I’d like to discuss two aspects here. First, I’d like to talk about the really simple but elegant symbolism running right through Unforgiven. And that is: the rain. When I was overanalysing In The Mood For Love, I was struck by how the rain symbolised a kind of uncontrollable nature. Notably, it made the male lead in that film sick as well. And it really appears to be the case here in Unforgiven as well. It’s raining at the start when the original act of brutality occurs. We are told the rain is approaching as soon as Munny and Ned join up with the Kid and head for Big Whiskey. As soon as he sees it, Munny swears for the first time — right after he has made his first unconscious move towards his flaw. Then, Little Bill hopes for some rain right as he pokes, prods, and chides an out-of-his-depth Beauchamp and a beaten English Bob to just try and shoot him. He is a sadist, and with the taste for violent domination once again, he’s bored now. Then, at the midpoint, the rain lashes Big Whiskey as Little Bill and William Munny meet for the first time, and extreme violence is meted out once more. And then… clear blue skies, as far as the eye can see, as William Munny recovers and appreciates nature and recalls his sage wife. Even as they kill Davey boy, the cruelty is mixed with shame. They allow his partners to bring the dying man some water as they sit in the indignity of what they are doing. At the false resolution, when it seems that Will Munny has not fallen to his flaw, there are once again huge, clear vistas on display. But then, minutes later, in the true resolution, as William Munny begins drinking again and sets on a killing spree, a thunderstorm hits Big Whiskey. And this is also why the opening and closing shots have so much power. The camera sits in the distance, looking up at the house, tree, and grave on the horizon, which are all only visible as they are silhouetted by the big, open sky behind them. Ok, Mark, so there’s rain, and it comes and goes. Big deal. Lots of films do that. Well, that’s true. But rarely does it feel so evocative of the central underlying theme of the piece. But more than that, what gives this symbolism its true richness is its counterpoint: Little Bill’s failure to build a shelter from the elements. This is what gives this symbolic device its real power and resonance. Little Bill is undeniably effective as a sheriff: as someone who can bring force and violence to bear. And this is why the scene where his deputies prepare to face English Bob is so integral to the piece. They need Little Bill and his certainty, experience, and power. The nervous deputy asks if Little Bill is scared, to which the one-armed deputy responds that he wasn’t… but he ain’t no carpenter. When Little Bill dies, he says that he doesn’t deserve this, he was building a house. But his house keeps flooding, just as Big Whiskey keeps seeing this violence. Because Little Bill is an effective sheriff, but he’s no carpenter. Little Bill is an effective tyrant, but he’s no community builder. This would all have been avoided if Little Bill had had a trial right at the start. But he doesn’t. He tells the cowboys that he’ll whip them as he figures they’d rather not have a trial. Then when he discovers that Skinny considers Delilah “damaged property”, Little Bill himself treats them as such, and fines the cowboys instead. Now, the whore’s anger is what continues to drive this story. Delilah does not want this act of vengeance. And Davey-boy was not directly involved and tries to make amends. On the other hand, who in the hell could blame these women for any amount of fury they feel?! They have been spoken about and treated as property by a tyrant who has a very limited capacity for listening. Little Bill completely muddles this situation just as he can’t put a single straight angle on his roof. He’s proud of having done the whole thing himself, but he should have hired a carpenter. Just as he should have had some kind of elected official or person of legal standing running the town. 

Which brings me to my next point: what makes Unforgiven just so damn good. And to my mind that is the expression of deep theme through action. As far as I’m concerned, good stories tell us something, but great stories convince us. So much of Unforgiven is about this idea that we are fallen. That is the central argument presented by William Munny’s journey. Munny’s wife, Claudia, to my mind functions as a kind of religious, or at least moral, stand-in. When we first meet William Munny, he talks about her curing him of his wickedness. He lost her when she was struck down by illness. Her grave acts as a kind of altar. Will Munny himself refers to her looking over his young ones, and that she wouldn’t want him sleeping with prostitutes. But, of course, in reality, as Ned points out, she wouldn’t want him doing any of this. And all the male characters are justifying things to themselves, even if they know deep down their justifications are false or insufficient. Will and Ned never really address the fact that they know the original story they heard is bullshit. Little Bill is called out on his hypocrisy right at the start for considering the cowboy who cut up a whore as not given to wickedness in a regular way… unlike the victim of this crime. And yet, Little Bill does not stop the pimping and prostitution, and there’s a sense that he might have a relationship with Strawberry Alice. English Bob is telling lies about his past, and pretending to be more upper class than he actually is with his accent. Meanwhile, Will is trying to pretend his past never happened at all. There’s a big sense of that great quote from Magnolia: we might be through with the past, but the past ain’t through with us. This film is all about the long tail of sin and violence. Tyranny cannot hold because of what it fosters. Once violence is committed, it only creates more violence. And once someone commits violence, they are tainted by it forever. At the end of the film, it is the man who surrenders all pretence that survives. David Webb People’s has stated that he never thought of his film as an anti-violence story, but more to show that violence is part of human nature. Which explains why everything in this film seems so ambivalent. But, vitally, its ambivalence is absolutely not a lack of clarity or clear statement. Ultimately, William Munny thrives because he gradually forgoes any notion of morality, of “deserve”. This is his gradual but crystal clear character arc from start to finish. At the start of the film, he is determined not to cuss, drink, or be cruel. When the counterargument of the film really comes into play in sequence VI, Munny becomes concerned that the Angel of Death is going to exact retribution on him for his wicked ways. But in the final turn of the story, he’s overcome by a thirst for vengeance for the violence committed upon his friend. For the violence that he committed. For the violence that one of the two people he murdered committed. But he doesn’t much care for the chain of causality, or for any great sense of morality. And, so, in the end, William Munny wins the fight and the money because he has truly accepted what his true uncontrollable nature is, and that that true nature remains unforgiven. And the final shot showing Claudia’s grave being abandoned with the blood-soaked earnings has such elegiac, melancholic power because Unforgiven convinces us that William Munny is correct. 

This has been Mark Overanalyses Film. Next time, I will be looking at a very different kind of all-time classic: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. If you enjoyed this episode, please like, rate, follow, recommend, and whatever else it is that’s good for this kind of thing! A special thanks to Mary Kate O’Flanagan who taught me everything I know about film, including these methods. Thanks for listening. Take care of yourselves, and see you soon.