Retrospective | Sean Cregan on Unforgiven

In Retrospective we ask authors to go back and consider what has influenced them in their approach to writing and stories. Kicking off the season we have Sean Cregan author of The Levels and recently released The Razor Gate.
For this retrospective, it was very tempting to go for William Gibson’s seminal NEUROMANCER, but I’ve bored people on the subject before so instead I’m going to talk about the equally seminal movie UNFORGIVEN.
The film’s a great mix of an exceptional cast, wonderfully bleak direction from Eastwood, and a corking script from David Peoples, who it would easy to forget – indeed, I didn’t have a clue until I checked IMDb just now – also wrote BLADE RUNNER. And LADYHAWKE.
There’s a key moment in the film, one of the greatest ‘character’ moments ever for my money, which remains my all-time shining example of how to show changes or internal drama in a character. Allow me to set the scene:
After his long-time friend Ned (Morgan Freeman) decided he couldn’t do it, not like when they were younger, Bill Munny (Eastwood) and the Schofield Kid have killed the two cowhands responsible for attacking a prostitute in town and are waiting to collect their $1,000 reward by a tree on a hill overlooking the place. The Kid, who’s never killed anyone before, shot the last of them while he was taking a shit, and he’s pretty cut up about it, swigging from a bottle of whiskey near tears and swearing he’ll never do anything like it again.
Munny, a former murderer and thief, has maintained throughout that his late wife cured him of wickedness and stopped him drinking (most of his crimes, he says, he was drunk for; even when freezing to death after a rainstorm he won’t touch a drop), and the Kid’s response has basically proved his reluctance to kill right: “It’s a hell of a thing killing a man. You take away all he’s got, and all he’s ever gonna have.”
Silky, one of the other prostitutes, rides up to give them their reward; they’re now wanted men, so she’s rushed and a little scared. She then reveals that Ned is dead, that he was found riding back to Kansas, identified as one of the killers and whipped for information by the sheriff, Little Bill. Munny protests that he was innocent, but she explains how Little Bill got angrier when he found out the second cattle hand was dead and that made the beating worse until Ned died, and now they’ve got him on display outside the bar.
Munny doesn’t shout, doesn’t rant and rave. Without the camera making a big deal of it, he takes a swig of the Kid’s whiskey.
That’s it. And it’s all you need to *know* that, in modern parlance, shit just got real. Eastwood makes no play of it, but his character’s just gone against everything he held dear before, dipped back into the old badness that once ruled him. It’s a little act, very low key, but so important and so well set up.
That kind of character moment, if I’ve got the skills (debatable), is the sort I always aim for now.