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William Munny (retired gunslinger-hitman, father of two, widower, broke) hears of a job in the town of Little Whiskey. There, two guys have cut up a whores face, and her colleagues have put up a reward for whoever kills the bastards. The desperation leads to temptation, so William and his former travelling fellow Ned (Morgan Freeman) follow The Schofield Kid to Little Whiskey. The town is governed by Sheriff Little Bill (Gene Hackman), who is willing to take any measures against the influx of professional (fantastic: Richard Harris as “English Bob”, rambling about who everybody should be able to shoot a President, but who would not be petrified when facing the assassination of a Royal?!) and less professional killers out for the reward. But William, Ned and the Kid go out hunting, and take the confrontation.

By definition a “later Western”, because when Clint Eastwood is in it as an old guy, you realise soon that the world has moved on and he does not draw that colt as quickly as he used to. As often with the Eastwood-directed movies, the main character (especially when played by the man himself) carry a very strict set of values, acquired over many years of wrong-doing, redemption, falling down and getting up. Same here: this is not personal, it is about the money, but falls under “justifiable” because the crime committed was of such low morale. But reaching the moral high-ground often means that you had to travel so long and far that when arrived, you lost the means to execute your plans. And your enemies. When acquired moral stance confronts formal authority, as here in the stand-off between William/Ned/Kid on the one side, and ruthless but right Sheriff Little Bill, that fight promises to be wicked. The audience does not hesitate to take sides with the murderers, and only realises this – if at all – when wondering whether it is not hypocritical to mourn them when justice catches up with them. This ambivalence, and not so much the play with old men’s inabilities and insufficiency, is it what makes the film interesting beyond comparable efforts. I would not call it the Western to end all Western (as others do), but that is mainly because “Once Upon a Time in The West” has achieved that already, and whatever followed can only fight for runners-up position. But a fascinating play by someone who almost defined the game for many years it is.
And read the reviews by Ebert and Variety.

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