In 1992 Clint Eastwood deconstructed the Western genre with his movie Unforgiven. The film peels back the layers of the Western genre mythology to look for real human beings underneath. Eastwood reveals a world that, while still stylized, feels lonely and more grounded than the epic heroism of the typical western. Unforgiven has one scene in particular where the stunted and stilted emotional lives of two of its characters are laid bare. It is a painful moment exchanged between two people who are ill-equipped to deal with intimacy.
It is winter in Big Whiskey Wyoming. Our protagonist, William Munny is just waking from a three-day sleep. He has been badly beaten. Watching over him is a young woman named, Delilah. She is a prostitute in Big Whiskey. She was attacked and cut by a customer and Munny has come to kill the perpetrator and claim the reward money.
Together they sit in an abandoned barn in the middle of nowhere, and as he shakes off the fog of his long sleep they begin to talk,
Delilah: “Are you really gonna kill them cowboys?” (Delilah is trying to match the image of a murderous bounty hunter with the grizzled old man she sees in front of her. The heart of the film is a comparison between the image of the western movie gunslinger and an unromantic reality.)
Munny: “I guess. (pause) There’s still a payment comin’ is there?” (Munny displays no posturing heroic bluster, just an acceptance of what he has to do to get the reward money.
Delilah: “Them other two, your friends, they been takin’ advances on the payments.”
Delilah: “Free ones.”
Munny: “Free ones?”
Delilah: “Alice and Silky been given them free ones.”
It is a deeply sad moment when we realize that Delilah is offering to have sex with Munny. This young woman has no other way of relating to men. She wants to show her warmth and gratitude for Munny and sex is all she knows. He isn’t even there to save her, he just wants the money, but she is grateful just the same.
Perhaps even more sad is that she is clearly testing whether a man will still have sex with her even after her face has been terribly scarred by the attack from the former John. Prostitution is most likely the only thing she has ever known. She has spent her life being valued solely for her appearance and now her defining quality has been marred.
Munny: “hm, I see” Munny avoids directly addressing the subject, but Delilah just comes out and asks,
Delilah: “Would you like a free one?” What is Munny to do? He is not a sophisticated man. He is not someone with much experience negotiating emotional difficulties. Most of his life he has solved problems with booze and violence, but he considers himself repentant. He looks her in the eye and regards her for an uncomfortable moment and then says in a disappointed tone,
Munny: “No, I guess not.” Delilah shakes her head as if she is trying to close back up the vulnerability she has just displayed,
Delilah: “I uh, I didn’t mean with me. I meant uh, Alice and Silky would be happy to give you a free one if you wanted one. That’s, that’s all I meant.” Delilah gets up from the bench that the two were sitting on and begins to walk away. Munny then realizes what had been at stake in their conversation.
Munny: “Oh, I didn’t mean I didn’t want a free one on account of you being cut up and all. And what I said about you lookin’ like me. That ain’t true. You ain’t ugly like me. It’s just that we both got scars. (pause) but you’re a beautiful woman and if I was to want a free one I would want it with you I guess, more than them other two. Just that I can’t on account of my wife.”
The audience knows that his wife is dead but Munny isn’t lying. Munny carries the memory of his wife around like a talisman. She was the one who got him out of his criminal life and he reveres her like a saint.
Neither Delilah nor Munny is emotionally mature people. These are frontier folk who are counting on their hard work and persistence to get them through life. They are not concerned with education or insight into humanity they just want to survive.
Using Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs both Delilah and Munny are stuck in the middle of Safety and Security. When you are struggling for the basic stability of safety there is no room for anything else. We get to see the two characters in a brief moment when they are temporarily safe and can afford to venture into the next stage, that of Love and Belonging.
What makes the scene compelling is the awkwardness of this first foray into new territory. The tension relies on our hope that they do not hurt each other emotionally while they stumble tentatively toward each other. In the end, we get neither success nor failure. They meet, they briefly open their hearts and then close them again.
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