Eastwood dedicated the movie to deceased directors and mentors Don Siegel and Sergio Leone. The film won four Academy Awards including Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Hackman), Best Director, Best Film Editing and Best Picture. Eastwood himself was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance, but he lost to Al Pacino for Scent of a Woman. Unforgiven was inducted into the United States National Film Registry in 2004.
In June 2008, Unforgiven was acknowledged as the fourth best American film in the western genre (behind Shane, High Noon, and The Searchers) in the American Film Institute's "AFI's 10 Top 10" list.
A group of prostitutes in Big Whiskey, Wyoming, offers a $1000 reward to anyone who would be able to kill two cowboys that disfigured one of them (Anna Levine). This offer upsets the local sheriff, a former gunfighter named Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman), who does not allow guns or assassins in his town.
Far away, in Kansas, The Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett), an arrogant young man, visits the farm of William Munny (Clint Eastwood), seeking to recruit him to kill the cowboys. In his youth, Munny was an infamous bandit and killer, but is now a widower raising two children on a pig farm. Though Munny initially refuses to help with the assassination, his pigs are sick, so he reconsiders and sets off to catch up with the Kid. On his way, Munny recruits his former riding partner, Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman), who reluctantly leaves his wife.
Back in Wyoming, gunfighter English Bob (Richard Harris) and his biographer W.W. Beauchamp (Saul Rubinek) arrive in Big Whiskey, also seeking the reward. Little Bill and his deputies disarm and beat him in the street, to set an example. While Bob is in jail, Little Bill gets Beauchamp to present a firearm to Bob, who refuses to take it, thinking it is unloaded. Little Bill tells Bob that he would have killed him if he had taken it. Bob is ejected from town, but Beauchamp decides to stay.
Munny, Logan, and the Kid arrive in Big Whiskey in a storm and head to the whorehouse. Munny has a bad fever, and is sitting alone in the saloon when Little Bill confronts him. Munny gives him a false name and tells him he is unarmed. Bill searches Munny and discovers his gun concealed in his coat, so he kicks him into the street. Logan and the Kid, who are upstairs with the prostitutes, escape when they realize the law is on to them.
The three regroup outside town, where they nurse Munny back to health. Then they ambush a group of cowboys in the canyons and kill one of the targets – but Logan and Munny no longer have much stomach for murder. Logan decides he will return home. Munny and the Kid head to the cowboys' ranch, where the Kid ambushes the second target in an outhouse and kills him. After they escape, the distraught Kid confesses he had never killed anyone before.
Logan is captured by Little Bill's men, and is beaten to death by Little Bill, but not before giving up his two accomplices. When he is told, Munny begins drinking. An alcoholic, he had until this point refused whiskey. The Kid rides off to deliver the reward money to Munny and Logan's families, while Munny heads into town to get revenge.
That night, Logan's corpse is displayed as a warning. Inside, Little Bill has assembled a posse. Munny walks straight into the saloon with a shotgun. A gunfight ensues, in which Munny shoots five men – including Little Bill – without being hit. He then drinks whiskey at the bar. Mr. Beauchamp asks for details about the gunfight, but Munny sends him on his way.
Little Bill, it turns out, was only wounded. When he tries to cock his gun the two look at each other as Little Bill angrily says "I'll see you in hell". Munny shoots Little Bill and kills Deputy Clyde, who survived the initial shootout.
As he rides off, Munny stops by Ned's body and shouts: "You'd better bury Ned right!" The final scene is a silhouette of Munny's farm.
- Clint Eastwood as William "Will" Munny
- Gene Hackman as Little Bill Daggett
- Morgan Freeman as Ned Logan
- Richard Harris as English Bob
- Jaimz Woolvett as The Schofield Kid
- Saul Rubinek as W. W. Beauchamp
- Frances Fisher as Strawberry Alice
- Anna Levine as Delilah Fitzgerald
- David Mucci as Quick Mike
- Rob Campbell as Davey Bunting
- Anthony James as Skinny Dubois
- Tara Frederick as Little Sue
- Beverley Elliott as Silky
- Liisa Repo-Martell as Faith
- Josie Smith as Crow Creek Kate
- Shane Meier as William Munny Jr.
Critical response was very positive, and the film is 'Certified Fresh' by rottentomatoes.com, with a 96% approval rating among reviews. Many critics acclaimed the film for its noir-ish moral ambiguity and atmosphere. They also acclaimed it as a fitting eulogy to the western genre. However, the film was not without its critics: Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, though the latter still gave it a positive vote, both criticized the picture for being too long and having too many superfluous characters (such as Harris's English Bob, who enters and leaves without ever meeting the protagonists). Roger Ebert did, however, eventually include the film in his "Great Movies" list.