There are two timely justifications for revisiting the career of Clint Eastwood at this particular moment. The most obvious is the premiere of Eastwood’s latest directorial effort, Hereafter, at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this month. The other is his appearance on the Beloit College Mindset List for the Class of 2014 which came out in August.
Beloit College has issued its Mindset List each August since 1998. They describe it as “…a look at the cultural touchstones that shape the lives of students entering college (in the fall)…” According to an Associated Press story on the issuance of the most recent list, the idea behind it “…is to remind teachers that cultural references familiar to them might draw blank stares from college freshmen born mostly in 1992.”
This year’s list includes items like:
“Item #15. Colorful lapel ribbons have always been worn to indicate support for a
“Item #28. They’ve never recognized that pointing to their wrists was a request for the
time of day…
“Item #68. They have never worried about a Russian missile strike on the U.S….”
And, more to the point, Item #12: “Clint Eastwood is better known as a sensitive director than as Dirty Harry.”
The AP story emphasized this last point, speaking with one Seattle 18-year-older who said of Eastwood, “I know he directed movies, but I also know he’s supposed to be sort of bad-ass.”
To Eastwood fans of a certain age, that this one-time movie bad-ass is now a regular feature of the film festival circuit accompanying sensitive directorial efforts like Hereafter, Million Dollar Baby (2004), Changeling (2008) et al, and is among one of the most respected filmmakers in mainstream films, is nothing short of mind-boggling.
Sort of bad-ass? Indeed, back before the Class of 2014 was born, he was considered one of the baddest bad-asses on the big screen.
* * * * *
With an early curriculum vitae including stints as a logger and gas station attendant, and then, eventually, bit parts in movies like Tarantula (1955) and Revenge of the Creature (1955),there is little from the beginning of Clint Eastwood’s career portending the eminent status he would be granted as a director with Unforgiven (1992), cement with Mystic River (2003),and entrench with Million Dollar Baby and the bookend pieces, Flag of Our Fathers (2006) and Letters from Iwo Jima (2006).
Eastwood’s movie career began as a contract player for Universal in the 1950s, but his first major break – and minor star status – came with his casting as a regular on the popular Western TV series, Rawhide. He stepped up to the big screen when Italian director Sergio Leone, looking for an American actor as a “hook” to gain U.S. distribution for his “spaghetti Westerns,” cast Eastwood as The Man With No Name in three increasingly popular oaters, A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965), and The Good the Bad and the Ugly (1966). The Leone successes led to offers of leads in American movies, though they were often B-caliber actioners such as Hang ‘Em High (1968), and Where Eagles Dare (1968), which rarely did little more than milk the laconic gunman persona Eastwood had established in his Italian features. However, with the breakout success of Dirty Harry (1971), Eastwood finally took a place among the ranks of major action stars, and quickly began to exploit the power of his newly bankable status by negotiating for his first feature directorial effort (Eastwood had initially tried his hand at directing on Rawhide), the psychological thriller Play Misty For Me (1971), a critically well-received story of a stalker’s obsession which essentially presaged Fatal Attraction 16 years later.
As actor and director, Eastwood early on displayed an admirable tendency to use his growing commercial value as a consistently popular action hero to – in effect – cross-collateralize creative risks both behind and in front of the camera, resulting in a body of work (much of it made through his Malpaso production company) which, while often dominated by routine action thrillers of one sort or another, was salted with a wildly eclectic mix of more personal endeavors. In terms of sheer creative guts if not quality, Eastwood’s against-type projects showed more nerve than evidenced in the oeuvres of talent of greater critical standing.
There was, for example, his departure from cool, dead-shot San Francisco loner cop Dirty Harry Callahan with his portrayal of less assured New Orleans detective Wes Block in Tightrope (1984),a single father pondering his own repressed sexual kinks as he tracks a serial killer through the city’s demimonde; he played broadly against type (co-starring with an orangutan, no less) as a happy-go-lucky bare-knuckle boxer in the loopy comedy Every Which Way But Loose (1978) and its sequel, Any Which Way You Can (1980);Eastwood poked gentle fun at his Western persona in Bronco Billy (1980), playing the star of a cheesy modern-day traveling Wild West show whose deep, dark secret is that he is really a shoe salesman from New Jersey; and then there was his doomed hillbilly crooner bonding with his runaway nephew on a cross-country trek in the Depression era drama, Honky Tonk Man (1982). His willingness to occasionally try significant departures from his commercially proven personas comes from a Zen-like simplicity of purpose he explained in a 2004 interview with British journalist Michael Parkinson where he discussed his decision to do Every Which Way But Loose against his agent’s advice and after having done a series of action thrillers: “… they said, ‘That’s not you,’ and I said, ‘Well, what is me? I don’t know’.”
Similarly, while his directorial credits prior to 1992 show a preponderance of routine actioners like Dirty Harry sequel Sudden Impact (1983), Heartbreak Ridge (1986), The Eiger Sanction (1975), The Gauntlet (1977),and The Rookie (1990),among them are also Bird (1988),his brooding biography of jazz great Charlie Parker; Honky Tonk Man and the Capra-esque Bronco Billy; and White Hunter, Black Heart (1990), with Eastwood also starring as a John Huston-like movie director in a story inspired by Huston’s carryings-on during the production of The African Queen (1951). Still, for all his genre dabbling and occasional genre inversions, a number of box office successes and the occasional critical tip-of-the-hat, by the mid-1980s Eastwood’s directorial reputation was that of a solid but unexceptional craftsman generally known for turning out the same kind of action thriller fare which had launched his career, but often failing to live up to the creative promise of Play Misty For Me. With a streak of disappointing or middling returns for The Dead Pool (1988), Bird, Pink Cadillac (1989), White Hunter, Black Heart, and The Rookie,and with Eastwood approaching 60, there was even some question as to whether or not he had passed his box office peak.
The best mile markers of Eastwood’s career through Unforgiven are his self-directed Westerns. Westerns had launched his big screen career, and they usually demarcated phases of his Hollywood passage. As well, Eastwood is as much a part of Western movie iconography as he is a part of the Dirty Harry-like rogue cop genre; considered by some as much a Western standard as John Wayne. His lanky frame, trademark squint, laid-back and often terse way with dialogue, an acting style the late actor Richard Burton described as “dynamic lethargy,” has always provided a natural fit for the saddle.
Play Misty For Me had made a bigger impression with critics than at the box office, so, understandably, for his second directorial effort, Eastwood fell back on what had, to that point, proven to be one of his more reliable commercial vehicles: the Western, with High Plains Drifter (1973) (Misty had a domestic gross of about $10 million vs. $19 million for The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, and $36 million for Dirty Harry. Drifter did about $14 million domestic).
Eastwood has always counted Sergio Leone and Dirty Harry director Don Siegel as the two greatest influences on his directorial career, but it is Leone’s spirit which dominates High Plains Drifter. The Italian director’s operatic style is stamped all over the movie,from the near-surreal imagery Eastwood concocts with cinematographer Bruce Surtees (Largo, a collection of raw-finished and half-built buildings with a bare toehold on strip of desert shore alongside a lifeless lake, painted a Satanic red at Eastwood’s order, the town’s “Welcome” sign amended to read, “Welcome to Hell”), to Dee Barton’s ethereal soundtrack (channeling Leone’s usual composer, Ennio Morricone), to the dramatic histrionics (snarling pit bull Bad Guys; spineless and transparently conniving Largo elders), and especially in the movie’s rather obvious morality tale (by Shaft scribe Ernest Tidyman and an uncredited Dean Reisner) about a — literally — avenging angel gunfighter come to town. This broad stylization and overt symbolism makes Drifter – like Leone’s movies — something of a kabuki Western, but it is a tone that fits the Twilight Zone-ish, not-quite-real-not-quite-unreal feel of the picture.
The Outlaw Josey Wales, coming just three years later, represents a substantial change for Eastwood. His career more firmly established, he begins to experiment, leaning away from Leone and more toward a Don Siegel aesthetic in attempting a story (Phil Kaufman and Sonia Shernus adapting Forrest Carter’s novel, Gone to Texas) more naturalistic and true-to-life (priming him for such subsequent life-sized projects as Bronco Billy and Honky Tonk Man). Eastwood is Josey Wales, a neutral Southern farmer during the Civil War who joins a Confederate guerilla band after raiders aligned with the Union (“Redlegs” for the identifying stripe on their trousers) torch his farm and slaughter his family. At the end of the war, Wales and the other guerillas prepare to lay down their arms at an arranged surrender only to be ambushed by the Redlegs. Wales escapes and winds his way west dogged by bounty hunters and a Redleg posse.
In contrast to High Plains Drifter’s aggressive visuals of a sun-baked hell, under the hand of Eastwood again working with Bruce Surtees, Josey Wales is a more visually subdued, often pastoral piece, set first among the quiet greens of Southern farmland, then moving on to the Western spaces. This is not the bleached-bone West of Drifter, but a softer-hued expanse, a limbo land with islands of promise for the cast-off and on-the-run. Eastwood’s eye here eschews Leone’s visual hysteria in favor of Siegel’s low-key approach; clean, straightforward visuals, letting the story, the characters, and the scenery speak for themselves within a relaxed frame, adding only sparingly the smallest of visual flourishes. Josey Wales’ strongest moments are its quietest: the “orphan” Wales’ gradual assembling an ad hoc family of fellow drifters (an aged Native American highwayman; a Native American woman liberated from sexual slavery; a pair of stranded lady settlers); the plain language eloquence of Wales’ face-to-face meet with Indian chief Will Sampson to strike a deal for peaceful coexistence; and especially in a melancholic coda where a wounded Wales finds himself face-to-face with the guerilla leader (John Vernon) he mistakenly assumed had arranged his unit’s massacre, each pretending not to recognize the other as they obliquely strike a peace and recognize that, finally, “The war’s over.”
Whether it was by inclination or for box office insurance, The Outlaw Josey Wales still regularly strays into the shoot-‘em-up Eastwood formula first staked out in the Leone movies. Like clockwork, Wales constantly bumps into a bounty hunter (more often, bounty hunters) or his Redleg pursuers, delivers a zingy this-means-war one-liner or two (“Dyin’ ain’t much of a livin’,” he says, trying to dissuade one gunman from taking him on), there’s a fast draw, a blaze of gunfire and Wales – no matter how badly outnumbered – emerges victorious, intact, and unmoved (after killing one pair of would-be assassins, he punctuates the episode by disdainfully spitting a large gob of tobacco juice on one corpse’s forehead). The movie seems caught between two poles: a routine Eastwood exercise in body counts on the one hand; a mournful, ruminative Western ballad on the other.
Eastwood would not venture another Western for 12 years, but when he did, there was more than a little gumption involved, for in those post-Heaven’s Gate (1980) years simply making any Western was an act of daring, let alone one as retro as Pale Rider (1985). The Eastwood/Surtees combine takes Rider’svisuals beyond those of Josey Wales, pushing for a greater texture, testing the camera’s tolerances for shadow, particularly in the dim natural light schemes of the movie’s interiors (perhaps a test run for the dark palette of Bird). Eastwood and Surtees manage a visual authenticity – that hardest of screen sensations to capture: the feel of a place — in Pale Rider which Michael Cimino couldn’t match in Heaven’s Gate with five times Eastwood’s budget. One can almost smell the dankness and raw wood and mud chinking of the cabin household of struggling small miner Michael Moriarity and his wife Carrie Snodgrass; feel the damp chill of a strip mine where ore is blasted out from open rock face with water cannons.
But, as visually striking as Pale Rider is, to the same degree so is it dramatically pallid. The screenplay by Michael Butler and Dennis Shryack is nothing more than a re-hashing of Shane – and not a particularly imaginative rehashing — which also cuts and pastes from earlier Eastwood works. Eastwood’s nameless gunman (his clerically-garbed character known only as, “Preacher”) is just another – and by now, tired – variant on his Leone era Man With No Name, and his role of other-worldly avenger is a lift from his own High Plains Drifter. Pale Rider is so painfully familiar that from its opening moments, the audience is simply marking time to the predictable Eastwood-defeats-a-small-army finale. Still, perhaps Eastwood understood the importance of Western rituals to Western fans – or at least Eastwood fans: Pale Rider was a respectable performer, with a domestic gross of $41.4 million against a lean $6.9 million budget.
In the years following, Eastwood seemed stalled. Much as Pale Rider had been an unimpressive rehash of Shane, Heartbreak Ridge was a similarly uninspired reworking of The Sands of Iwo Jima (1949). He reached far afield from his usual beat with Bird and White Hunter, Black Heart, but while the first gained him a fair measure of critical respect, both performed abysmally at the box office. A return to the action genre with The Rookie seemed a tired pro forma effort. Then came an offering some would come to consider to be among the best American movies of the last few decades as well as one of the all-time classic Westerns: Unforgiven.
When compared to Eastwood’s previous work, the artistic maturity of Unforgiven is startling. Though one can easily see Eastwood’s technical prowess evolve over the course of his directorial career, there’s been less of a discernible evolutionary line in his handling of drama. His previous directorial effort – The Rookie, released just two years earlier – is pedestrian in every way; Eastwood turning out a by-the-numbers Eastwood actioner long after the appeal of the formula has waned. On the other hand, everything about Unforgiven is fresh, yet assured, as if coming from another part of Eastwood’s movie-making soul where it had been percolating for years and was only just now ready to appear fully formed. Said Rolling Stone at the time, Unforgiven was, “A polished piece of rawhide revisionism, it’s antiromantic, antiheroic and antiviolent…if it’s not recognized right away as a classic, it will be.”
There is much about Unforgiven which feels a product of aspects of Eastwood’s moviemaking process now honed to a fine edge. By 1992, Eastwood had established a work pattern that was, according to a 60 Minutes profile, “…a study in efficiency, consistently bringing his films in ahead of schedule and under budget”; budgets which, from the outset, nearly always fell below the blockbuster era’s vertiginous median. On the set, director Eastwood rarely devotes more than two takes to a scene. Generally working with the same crew time and again, the consequent familiarity produces shoots that are surprisingly speedy and economical. Director Sam Mendes (American Beauty ; Road to Perdition )would, 12 years after Unforgiven’s release, still marvel in an interview with Charlie Rose at how Eastwood could turn out a movie of such quality after a shoot of only five weeks or so – unheard of for most major studio productions whose shoots routinely run into months.
Yet the shoots themselves, for all their speed, are easygoing, in part because of Eastwood’s own laid back, even-toned manner. Along with a crew familiar with Eastwood’s needs, what also comes into play is the cast preparation which goes on beforehand. In a 2003 interview, Eastwood himself explained the process as it worked on Mystic River, saying how most of his directing of the actors happened long before filming. As each member of the cast was brought on to the project, Eastwood would discuss the material, then send them to Boston – the story’s locale – to get a feel for the neighborhoods in which the storyplayed out. He also arranged meetings for the cast with Dennis Lehane, author of the novel upon which the movie was based. Said Eastwood, “….by the time we started everyone was really well schooled on what they wanted to do…”
Nor does Eastwood allow himself to be distracted by the non-essential. If the weather takes an unwanted turn, an effect doesn’t come off, an actor fumbles a prop or a move, Eastwood either incorporates the unexpected into the scene providing a sense of spontaneity for his actors, or drops the element altogether.
Having established a system composed of talent Eastwood could trust – crew members with a long, established working relationship with him; actors who already know what is expected of them — Eastwood comes to a shoot like the designer of a finely engineered car whom only ever has to lightly lay his fingertips on the wheel on occasion to get the car to go where he wants it. That “light touch on the wheel” manifests itself on-screen as what Sam Mendes described as “certainty”; a visual economy which says Eastwood knows exactly what he needs to tell his story, and has put a team together who knows how to give it to him.
This presents on-screen in visuals which– while never bland – are simple and clean. The camera in Unforgiven almost never moves rapidly, generally avoids zooms and pans, rarely moves in for extreme close-ups giving his actors room to interact, and allows beats for Jack N. Green’s autumnal cinematography to bring something to every scene. Dialogue-heavy scenes play out at a natural rhythm with minimal interruption by cuts or distracting camera moves.
The two most significant differences elevating Unforgiven far beyond Eastwood’s previous attempts at heavier dramatic fare are the principal actors, and David Webb Peoples’ Oscar-nominated screenplay.
Prior to Unforgiven, Eastwood vehicles – whether directed by the actor or not – were populated with second tier performers, some of which, like Geoffrey Lewis (Every Which Way But Loose; Any Which Way You Can; Pink Cadillac ), John Vernon (Dirty Harry; The Outlaw Josey Wales), Bill McKinney (Thunderbolt and Lightfoot ; The Gauntlet ; Bronco Billy; The Outlaw Josey Wales), and John Mitchum (Dirty Harry; Magnum Force , The Enforcer ; The Outlaw Josey Wales), were part of a John Ford-like stock company Eastwood regularly drew on to fill supporting parts. While many of Eastwood’s “company players” were quite fine performers, they also, unfortunately, often gave Eastwood’s pictures – especially his more “serious” dramatic efforts like Honky Tonk Man and White Hunter, Black Heart — a B-caliber air. Unforgiven marked the first time Eastwood surrounded himself with actors of comparable stature – Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman, and Richard Harris – an ensemble which gives the picture a dramatic gravitas Eastwood’s earlier serious efforts never managed.
The real strength of the movie, though, is David Webb Peoples’ screenplay. At first, Unforgiven offers all the elements of another Eastwood-as-avenger yarn: Eastwood is a retired gunman turned failing pig farmer who, out of economic necessity, takes up his gun again to become one of a trio trekking to the far-off town of Big Whiskey, Wyoming, in pursuit of a bounty on a pair of cowboys who mutilated a prostitute. Peoples’ plot is a twisting, turning, eel-like thing, though, worming away from genre-conditioned expectations to deliver, in the words of Entertainment Weekly reviewer Chris Willman, “…a compelling sermon on how even the best-intentioned justice gets messy and inexact.” “In this film,” says Eastwood, “the punishment never fits the crime.” Unforgiven is unconventionally structured, defying the oft applied Hollywood canard that every scene should propel a movie’s plot forward. Instead, Unforgiven digresses, it pauses for throw-away scenes and sub-stories having little or no connection to the central plot, it switches focus between its two principals (Eastwood’s gunman William Munny and Gene Hackman’s autocratic Big Whiskey sheriff, Little Bill) and follows them off on tangents, even shifting emphasis from the plot which kicked off the movie to the spun-off tale of vengeance that concludes it. The movie plays, then, less like the typical Hollywood construct than a disease vector study, tracing the virulent, corrupting toxicity of the movie’s initial, priming act of violence as it passes by contact randomly — but naturally — from one character to another, killing souls as lethally as people as it goes along. There is, by the movie’s end, no vindicating act, no resolution restoring the scales of justice, no catharsis, no uplifting epiphany, nothing even remotely resembling triumph. Instead, the innocent have died along with the guilty, and there has been little clear demarcation between the Good Guys and the Bad Guys, between victims and victimizers. Often, characters are both. Peoples says, “I have a hard time being on anybody’s side in anything. I’m inclined to see everybody’s point of view,” which makes Unforgiven one of the most provocative of morality plays; one in which it becomes nearly impossible to divine rightness of action, of how to do good without also doing harm. “(It’s) easy to imagine,” wrote Willman, “the ‘bad guys’ killed by Eastwood (in Unforgiven) as heroes in some other movie.” “The world of Unforgiven,” said Rolling Stone, “is a complicated world. It’s an adult world: It’s a world where violence doesn’t solve any problems, it just changes the problem.”
Eastwood’s gunman William Munny sums up the movie’s ethos with one of Unforgiven’s signature lines. As wannabe gunslinger The Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett) tries to drown his self-disgust over his first killing with liquor, he tries to ease his conscience by the idea that the man he’d killed “…had it comin’.” Eastwood’s scarred and time-ravaged face looks out at the messenger carrying the whores’ bounty toward them and says, “We’ve all got it comin’, Kid.”
Unforgiven was as un-Hollywood a major studio Western as had appeared on big screens since The Wild Bunch (1969). It also marked a maturing in the sensibility of its star and director. “(It’s) the first time,” Eastwood would say at the time of the movie’s release, “I’ve…been able to interpret it in a way that death is not a fun thing.” The Eastwood persona of old – the Dirty Harry-esque avenger who “…just ‘removed’ …” the opposition was gone.
Unforgiven – with its acclaim and awards – announced a new stage in Eastwood’s career. He was no longer an actor/director, but a director/actor, and a “serious” director at that.
He came to seem to prefer being behind the camera rather than in front of it. Eastwood’s turn as an aging Secret Serviceman – one of his best performances – in the Wolfgang Petersen-directed In the Line of Fire (1993) was, as of this writing, his last time in front of the camera on an actor-for-hire basis. He was no more than a supporting player in A Perfect World (1993), and didn’t appear at all in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1997), or Mystic River. Regularly, now – learning one of the lessons of Unforgiven – his movies would be cast with an eye toward dramatic heft, i.e. Kevin Costner and Laura Dern in A Perfect World; Meryl Streep in The Bridges of Madison County (1995); Kevin Spacey and John Cusack in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil; Gene Hackman, Ed Harris, Scott Glenn, Laura Linney, Judy Davis, and E.G. Marshall in Absolute Power (1997);James Woods and Anthony Zerbe in True Crime (1999);Tommy Lee Jones, James Garner, Donald Sutherland, David Cromwell, Marcia Gay Harden, and William Devane in Space Cowboys (2000);and Jeff Daniels and Angelica Huston in Blood Work (2002). Yet, by the time of Blood Work, one might have been inclined to wonder whether or not Unforgiven had been a fluke, or, at the very least, Eastwood’s come-and-gone creative peak.
Eastwood’s directorial craftsmanship was as solid as ever, and he would turn out major commercial successes with Bridges and Space Cowboys. And, there is something memorable in each effort even if the whole was often less than the sum of its parts: Kevin Spacey’s magnetic performance as a snobby, gay, antique dealer in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil; sparkling scenes between Eastwood and Ed Harris in Absolute Power, and with James Woods and Denis Leary in True Crime; capturing the heartbreak of the last hours of a family’s death row vigil in True Crime; bare-bottomed Tommy Lee Jones, James Garner, Donald Sutherland and Eastwood gamely playing their ages as a quartet of decrepit astronauts assembling for one, last mission in Space Cowboys; Eastwood inverting his macho image as a retired FBI agent who has received a heart transplant, his face twisting in fear as he covers up his scarred chest when fists start flying in Blood Work; distilling the syrup out of novelist Robert James Waller’s The Bridges of Madison County with the help of screenwriter Richard LaGravenese to turn out a rare, grown-up romance for a grown-up audience featuring grown-up characters.
Yet the sensibility of Unforgiven – morally complex, dramatically provocative and resonant – only arose in fleeting moments. His post-Unforgiven resume reads like that of one of the studio contract directors of the mogul era; disparate, eclectic, executing with equal polish whatever the studio chiefs hand his way. Only here, Eastwood was the studio, and the disparate, eclectic choices were his own and, after Unforgiven, disappointing. Despite William Goldman’s Herculean efforts at streamlining David Balducci’s unfocused thriller novel about murder and the White House, Absolute Power’s picture of the upper echelons of government is painfully naïve and simplistic, paling next to any random episode of TV series, West Wing; Blood Work’s tale of a taunting serial killer is a tired hike down an already too-familiar Silence of the Lambs (1991) path; True Crime’s race-against-time story of a crusading reporter trying to save a man unjustly convicted of murder is a creaky throwback to the newspaper dramas of the 1930s.
Nowhere does Eastwood show his limitations as a director more clearly than in the failed adaptation of John Berendt’s non-fiction book, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Eastwood and screenwriter John Lee Hancock are at a loss as to how to handle Berendt’s deftly-sculpted collection of what at first seem random tales of the Savannah elite and not-so-elite, disparate threads which slowly coalesce into an account of a scandalous sex-and-murder trial. Eastwood and Hancock respond to the challenge by force-fitting Berendt’s material into more conventional, straight-forward form – including a contrived romance for its narrator hero — that costs the story much of the book’s unique charm and enrapturing mystique.
Eastwood came closest to Unforgiven’s dramatic accomplishments with the half-brilliant A Perfect World, also scripted by John Lee Hancock. In what was, at the time, brazen casting, Eastwood took Kevin Costner – then coming off a streak of squeaky clean Good Guy roles – and had him play viciously against type as escaped felon Butch Haynes who takes eight-year-old Phillip (T.J. Lowther) hostage with him on a rambling road trip across Texas. The story could easily have tipped into treacle, a bonding story between surrogate father and surrogate son that, in typical Hollywood fashion, results in the moral rehabilitation of the hard-boiled Haynes, but the movie refuses the trap of audience-satisfying sentimentality. As Hancock discretely alludes to Haynes’ own scarred childhood, the convict’s role doesn’t so much develop into that of protective father figure as much as Haynes’ living out the fantasy of a childhood he never had through young Phillip. Hancock adroitly walks a dramatic high wire in the Haynes/ Phillip plot, balancing between moral lights and darks until in the movie’s climax, the story tumbles into a hellish blackness. While sheltering in the home of a family of sharecroppers, Haynes’ past dysfunctions are triggered, and, in one of the most chilling scenes Eastwood has ever put on film, the felon prepares with practiced efficiency to murder the farmer in front of his wife and son. As a scratchy country tune plays and repeats on an ancient turntable, Haynes binds the man with duct tape, then his wife and child, then seals the family’s eyes shut before turning to Phillip – and in a horrifying corruption of the father/mentor role Haynes has flirted with – tells Phillip he can either watch or leave; “You’re old enough to decide for yourself.” Eastwood and Hancock deliver, wrote Film Comment’s Kent Jones, “…the ultimate life lesson: that the same person can be nice and frightening, wise and murderously crazy, all at once.”
But, the movie is crippled with a parallel story; the pursuit of Haynes by Texas Ranger Red Garnett (Eastwood). Where the Haynes/Phillip story is bold and complex, the chase is strictly formula; a few cheap jokes, stereotypically sun-glassed government killers, and the sentiment so neatly avoided on one side of the movie is here tripping up the tale of a Texas Ranger with a burdened conscience and a past connection to Haynes.
But then, in 2003 came Mystic River, a movie some critics have hailed as one of the best American films in years; to some, in decades.
All of the certainty and assurance marking Unforgiven is back in full force in Mystic River; in its text (adapted from Dennis Lehane’s acclaimed novel by Brian Helgeland who had shared an Oscar with Curtis Hanson for adapting James Ellroy’s similarly layered neo-noir, L.A. Confidential ), its visuals, and its powerful ensemble of principals (Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, Kevin Bacon). Though a modern-day dramatic thriller, Mystic… takes on many of the same themes of Unforgiven and mines still deeper into their core,particularly that of the toxic quality of violence. When one of three childhood friends is abducted and abused, the incident leaves all three scarred; emotional fault lines which, decades later, fracture in a dominoes-fall series of compounding tragedies Eastwood describes as “…an unraveling.” And, also like Unforgiven, Mystic is a devastating attack on the Hollywood revenge myth; according to Entertainment Weekly’s Jeff Jensen,how “…the aching need for justice and closure can cloud wisdom and curdle compassion.” Instead, Mystic resurrects Unforgiven’s thesis that violence is an uncontrollable demon, and that, as William Munny tells a dying Little Bill, “Deserve’s got nothin’ to do with it.”
On balance, one might argue Clint Eastwood is not a great director, but a director capable of great movies. Still, in this — his latest, post-Unforgiven incarnation — even in his weakest work, he is a standard bearer for a kind of mainstream movie-making that has become exceedingly rare at the major studio level; one driven not by spectacle, effects, or action, not breathlessly paced, but carried by drama and characters Eastwood aspires to reflect some real aspect of the Everyman, whose stories unspool with an unhurried dignity. Wrote one French critic of Eastwood after Mystic River’s screening at the 2003 Cannes film festival, “(He’s) a director who has placed himself in the grand Hollywood tradition so cruelly neglected by American cinema.” His protagonists from Unforgiven on are flawed, limited, often haunted characters, fallible, and still more poignantly, often aware of their fallibilities.
There’s a lovely scene in True Crime (another example of his ability to instill memorable moments in routine projects) between Eastwood – as a burned-out, divorced, ex-alcoholic reporter trying to get his career back on track – and Denis Leary, his supervising editor who has discovered Eastwood has been having an affair with his wife. No shouting, no histrionics; just two pained and awkward men who realize this is a situation made of their own failings, and who can’t find the words to indict (Leary) or to apologize (Eastwood).
His work since Mystic River evidences a filmmaker unafraid to challenge himself: first came the heart-breaking Academy Award-winning boxing drama, Million Dollar Baby in 2004; in 2006, his depiction of the brutal Battle of Iwo Jima from both the American and Japanese sides with Flag of Our Fathers and Oscar-nominated Letters from Iwo Jima respectively, the latter brazenly filmed almost entirely in Japanese; 2008’s Gran Torino which turned his tough-guy, narrow-minded Dirty Harry personaon its ear; the South African-set sports drama Invictus (2009); and his latest, Hereafter, possibly his most spiritual film to date.
It is worth pointing out that there’s many a director who has been more qualitatively consistent and more stylistically expansive than Eastwood, yet has never turned out a movie as memorable as Unforgiven, or Mystic River, or Million Dollar Baby, or Letters from Iwo Jima. His post-Unforgiven works represent a welcome throwback predating an era in American cinema Eastwood once described as being one in which“…there’s an awful lot of people hanging on wires and floating across things and comic book characters…”
– Bill Mesce