Eastwood’s superb Western is the bastard child of “The Wild Bunch” and “McCabe and Mrs. Miller,” combining the amoral ferocity of Peckinpah’s masterpiece with the anti-hero eccentricity of Altman’s whorehouse dreamscape. The references matter because Eastwood is working on the fringes of an often glorified, hackneyed Western tradition, roasting chestnuts in its darker lining. Gunfighters are the sum of their opportunism.
In Big Whiskey, Wyoming, angry prostitutes offer a reward to anyone who can kill the man who maimed one of their own. This doesn’t please local lawman Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman), a thug-emperor who wants neither guns nor gunfighters in his repressively buttoned-down town. Still, two misfit posses advance, one led by English Bob (Richard Harris) and his biographer; the second led by The Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett), who enlists widower and down-on-his-luck former robber William Munny (Clint Eastwood). Munny in turn drafts another old-timer, Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman), and off they creak to Big Whiskey.
Little Bill may not like guns, but intruders tickle his mean side. First Bob and then Munny’s crew are ripped into. Eastwood’s typically laconic Munny, a pig farmer who got back into the gun game reluctantly, suddenly finds both his mettle and honor at risk. Wicked sheriff and resolute old-timer are placed on a collision course.
Eastwood’s exorcism of good-guys ensures that Munny and Little Bill exist outside moral and merciful conventions. Their moods depend on wantonness and exigent circumstances. Even nobility is feral. When Little Bill eventually tells Munny he doesn’t deserve to die, Munny’s reply is typically legend-busting: “Deserves got nothin’ to do with it.” No one is entirely upright, no one outstandingly decent. It’s all about last man standing. The film won Eastwood Best Picture and Best Director Oscar honors.