According to David Denby, the Big 3 among our film directors are Woody Allen, the Coen brothers, and Clint Eastwood. Of this trio, only Eastwood has been a larger-than-life film star as well as a gifted director. If this is (fair & balanced) polymathic behavior, so be it.
[x New Yorker]
Out Of The West
By David Denby
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On a beautiful day in Wyoming, in 1880, three men gather on a slight rise behind some rocks, ready to do a bit of killing. Two of them—William Munny (Clint Eastwood) and Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman)—are retired professional assassins, disgusted with their past but broke and therefore willing to shoot a couple of cowhands, unknown to either of them, for cash. The third is the excitable “Schofield Kid” (Jaimz Woolvett), who has read Western dime fiction all his life and is hot to plug someone—pretty much anyone will do. Logan is the best shot, and he raises his Spencer rifle, aiming at one of the men, who are rounding up cattle with some others below. But, after hitting the man’s horse, Logan can’t pull the trigger again; he just can’t kill anymore. As the Schofield Kid loudly complains that no one’s dead yet, Munny takes the rifle and mortally wounds the cowhand, who howls so persistently for water that Munny shouts at his companions, “Will you give him a drink of water, for Christ’s sake? We ain’t gonna shoot.”
The scene, which appears more than halfway through Clint Eastwood’s 1992 Western, “Unforgiven,” is excruciatingly long—nearly five minutes—and, watching it for the first time, you sense almost immediately that the episode is momentous. The awkwardly insistent realism has a cleansing force: at least for that moment, ninety years of efficient movie violence—central to the Western and police genres—falls away. Old myths dissolve into the messy stupidity of life, which, as rendered by Eastwood, becomes the most challenging kind of art. It’s idiotic to kill a stranger for money, and, not only that, it’s hard. Particularly hard on the stranger, but hard on you, too. The Schofield Kid, it turns out, gets to shoot the other cowhand a bit later, as the guy is sitting in the crapper. But, afterward, the Kid is sickened and scared. Everything about the two killings feels wrong, which is all the more surprising since the creator of this sobering spectacle is an actor-director who became famous playing men who killed without trouble, and sometimes with pleasure.
Being underestimated is, for some people, a misfortune. For Eastwood, it became a weapon. Certainly, no one meeting him in his twenties, before his movie career began, would have seen much more than a good-looking Californian who loved beer, women, cars, and noodling at the piano—a fun guy to hang out with. Since those unprepossessing days, he has done the following: starred in a hit TV show, “Rawhide”; appeared in more than fifty movies and directed thirty-one, often acting, directing, and producing at the same time; added several menacingly ironic locutions to the language, such as “Make my day,” which Ronald Reagan quoted in the face of a congressional movement to raise taxes; become a kind of mythic-heroic-redemptive figure, interacting with public desire in a way that no actor has done since John Wayne; served as the mayor of Carmel; won four Oscars and received many other awards, including a hug from Nicolas Sarkozy while becoming commander of the Légion d’Honneur, last November. Those who were skeptical of Eastwood forty years ago (I’m one of them) have long since capitulated, retired, or died. He has outlasted everyone.
Early on, his outsider heroes operated with an unshakable sense of right. Such men were angry enforcers of order defined not by law but by primal notions of justice and revenge. “Nothing wrong with shooting as long as the right people get shot,” Eastwood’s Dirty Harry said in “Magnum Force” (1973). Removed from normal social existence, these low-tech terminators eliminated “the right people” and withdrew into bitter isolation again. Noblesse oblige—or, perhaps, vigilante oblige. Yet by mid-career, in the late nineteen-seventies and early eighties, even as films in the Dirty Harry series were still coming out, Eastwood began showing signs of regret, twinges of doubt and self-reproof, along with a broadening of interest and a stunning increase of aesthetic ambition. He made comedies, bio-pics, and literary adaptations (and twice starred with an orangutan). The movies shifted from stiff, stark, enraged fables, decisive to the point of patness, to something more relaxed and ruminative and questioning. In “Unforgiven,” he holds scenes a few extra beats, so that characters can extend their legs, scratch behind their ears, air some issue of violence or honor. The movie comments on itself as it goes along.
It’s now obvious that “Unforgiven” was less an end point than a significant way station on an uninterruptible career path. Eastwood’s latest film, “Invictus,” a celebration of the shrewd and noble way that Nelson Mandela united South Africa in 1995, is not one of his best movies—it’s a little too simple—but it’s devoted to a man who is the opposite of isolated, a man whose sense of right changes an entire society. (Eastwood, a moderate libertarian Republican, has acknowledged parallels with the Presidency of Barack Obama, and expressed his annoyance with the “morbid mood” of America and the “teen-age twits” in Washington.) In all, Eastwood has had an incredibly productive long run, and, in honor of it, Warner Bros. recently issued a DVD boxed set of thirty-four movies that Eastwood starred in or directed for the studio. There is also a recent biography, “American Rebel,” by Marc Eliot, although Richard Schickel’s 1996 biography, despite the fact that it reflects Eastwood’s views throughout, remains the shrewdest accounting of the director’s films and character. At the end of May, rich, garlanded, and exceptionally busy, Eastwood will turn eighty.
He was born big—Bunyonesque big—at eleven pounds six ounces, in 1930, and grew up mostly in Piedmont, California, near Oakland. During the Depression, as his father found and lost jobs, the family was constantly on the move. Schickel has suggested that this peripatetic life may be a cause of Eastwood’s habit in his movies of appearing out of nowhere at the beginning and disappearing at the end. The constant in Eastwood’s early life was his mother, Ruth, who collected jazz records and got her son excited about music. As a teen-ager, hanging around clubs in Oakland and Los Angeles, Eastwood heard such icons of the new West Coast cool style in jazz as Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker and the bebop geniuses in their early days, among them Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. As Eastwood has said, his notion of cool—slightly aloof, giving only the central satisfaction and withholding everything else—is derived from those musicians.
After high school, he did odd jobs for a couple of years, including hard work in a lumber mill and easy work on a beach, as a lifeguard. When he was drafted, in 1950, he was made a swimming instructor, and kept out of combat in Korea. Assigned to Fort Ord, near Carmel, which turned out to be the geographical center of the rest of his life, he worked days at the base pool and manned the piano at local bars on nights off—a relaxed existence that he captured in his first film as a director, “Play Misty for Me” (1971), in which he was a Carmel disk jockey, indolent, seductive, and seducible, a character probably as close to the actual young Eastwood as we’ve ever seen onscreen.
At the suggestion of friends, Eastwood sat in on evening classes, taught by a disciple of Michael Chekhov, the acting guru, and in 1954 he came to the notice of Universal Studios, which still had a “school” devoted to the training of young actors. He signed on as a contract player for seventy-five dollars a week. His teachers noted a certain tentativeness in his demeanor—to put it gently, he didn’t project much—but also some interesting corners in his temperament, and for the next few years he had small parts in junk movies. No one much noticed him until he was hired, in 1958, to star (alongside Eric Fleming) in “Rawhide,” one of the many TV Westerns of the period, this one complete with a Frankie Laine theme song punctuated with crackling whiplashes. After a few years, bored and ready to jump, Eastwood received a strange, derivative script by a man named Sergio Leone. It was titled “The Magnificent Stranger” and was an obvious remake of “Yojimbo,” Akira Kurosawa’s bloody but funny 1961 samurai classic. Leone was a second-unit director in Italy who was obsessed with America. He was convinced that the classic Western had turned what was historically a remorseless struggle for commercial dominance into a moralized battle between good and evil. Leone wanted literally to demoralize the Western. He took the deep syntax of the genre (the bare streets, the stare-downs and sudden draws, the high body counts), raised it to the surface, and dropped almost everything else. “A Fistful of Dollars,” as “Stranger” was eventually titled, and its more entertaining sequels, “For a Few Dollars More” and “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,” was knowing parody, and Eastwood, with his minimalist technique, fit perfectly into the style of unyielding absurdism. As the Man with No Name, he kept his head still, at a slight angle; he narrowed his eyes; he scowled and curled his upper lip. It was an arrogant teen-ager’s idea of acting, but he looked mean, amused, coolly amoral. He understood that, for an actor like him, playing a character was less important than establishing an image of implacable male force.
There were comic possibilities embedded in Eastwood’s mask, and the director Don Siegel (who became Eastwood’s mentor) exploited them in the coarsely conceived “Coogan’s Bluff” (1968). This time, Eastwood is a contemporary Western sheriff from the sun-bleached desert of Arizona searching for an escaped felon in a crowded, noisy New York filled with chattering neurotics, hippie scum, and hungry women. Apart from taking advantage of the sexual opportunities, the sheriff does little more than glare and hold his ground. But there’s a prickly side to the comedy. Siegel played off the country’s growing distaste for the big city and the counterculture by presenting a ruthless Western pragmatist as a true American hero. The mold was set, and the ruthlessness, without losing its comic edge, turned dire. In the baleful pop-cult explosion “Dirty Harry” (1971), also directed by Siegel, Eastwood’s Inspector Harry Callahan catches up with a serial killer terrorizing San Francisco and chooses to torture him instead of reading him his rights. (The Miranda warning had become law a few years earlier.) The Nixon-era, law-and-order sentiment of the movie was unmistakable: criminals are out of control; payback time is at hand. In a drolly violent prelude, Callahan stops a bank robbery at lunchtime, crossing the street and blazing away with his .44 Magnum, while chewing on a hot dog. Pointing the gun, which may or may not have a bullet left in its chamber, Callahan almost croons to a wounded robber who’s thinking of reaching for his own weapon, “You’ve got to ask yourself one question, ‘Do I feel lucky?’ Well, do ya, punk?” The question became one of Eastwood’s signature lines; he repeats it at the end of the film, when he has the serial killer under his gun, and this time the question is lethal.
That moment—an insolent piece of pop cruelty—put Eastwood, at the not so young age of forty-one, over the top. An actor may work for years without becoming a star, as John Wayne and Humphrey Bogart did throughout the nineteen-thirties. Then, suddenly, looks, temperament, and role all come together—as they did for Wayne, in “Stagecoach” (1939), and for Bogart, in “The Maltese Falcon” (1941)—and the public sees the actor, sees what it desires. He becomes not only a star but a myth, as Garry Wills defined it in his 1997 book “John Wayne’s America”—something that was true for the people who needed it to be true. What the public needed from Eastwood by the time of “Dirty Harry” was both physical and, in a convoluted way, moral.
It began with his appearance. He stood about six feet three, as tall as Wayne. He had gray-green eyes; a forehead like the rock face of Yosemite’s Half Dome; a perfect jawline. A fitness nut, he was broad-shouldered by nature and muscular from the hours spent in his workout room, but not overly muscled—not a media joke like Sylvester Stallone or Arnold Schwarzenegger. A mass of light-brown hair piled up on his head in a pompadour and flowed back in waves; he had an animal grace, a big-cat tension as he moved. Wayne was graceful, too, but he had an unusually long torso, and he rolled slightly as he walked. As Wills pointed out, Wayne, swinging his bulk down the streets of the Old West, couldn’t imagine being challenged by anyone. Eastwood, ever wary, couldn’t imagine a world free of challenge. Wayne’s confidence, Wills says, made him especially popular in a country that had won the Second World War and shouldered the burdens of the Cold War. One could add that Eastwood’s guardedness, and his Magnum, offered reassurance to a country that was losing in Vietnam and feared chaos in the streets.
“Mass culture is a machine for showing desire,” Roland Barthes wrote. It’s also a machine for expressing resentment, a frustration of desire. Harry Callahan is lonely, hard, intolerant. Eastwood became popular, in part, because he allowed people to dream that they could be effective without being nice. He was a man, as the critic Michael Wood wrote, who let the audience enjoy “imaginary violence as a solution to real problems.” Callahan hates officials (he defies the mayor), and disdains regulations that slow him down, yet his rebellion would have been meaningless outside the system. He was an outsider by temperament, who nevertheless stayed inside, protecting society, protecting us. For that reason, Eastwood became, as everyone said, an icon. A lesser man, receiving such adoration, might have gone on repeating himself forever.
As an actor in training at Universal, Eastwood had roamed all over the lot, asking questions about different aspects of filmmaking, and, during his “Rawhide” years, he made several requests, without success, to direct an episode. In 1970, he prevailed upon Universal to let him direct a low-budget feature. In return for not taking a fee, he had the freedom to make the movie as he liked. The studio may have been trying to hook him into years of service in Western, crime, and other action vehicles. But a couple of years earlier, before he became a superstar, Eastwood set up his own production company, Malpaso, and from that time on if studios wanted him they had to negotiate with his company; this allowed him to exercise control over the script, the director, and major casting. He had created the basis of his freedom before he needed to exercise it.
At first, it wasn’t clear how he would display himself in his own work. The d.j. hero of “Play Misty for Me,” Dave Garver, whispers so intimately into the microphone that an impressionable fan (Jessica Walter) imagines that she has a special bond with him. He sleeps with her a few times, only to discover that she’s a knife-wielding psychopath who won’t let go. This casually made picture featured plentiful views of Eastwood’s bare chest, which appeared in many movies, including “The Beguiled,” which he had made with Don Siegel just before “Dirty Harry.” In “The Beguiled,” Eastwood is a wounded Union soldier who is taken in by the itchy women of a girls’ school at the end of the Civil War. The two portraits of lusted-after men border on narcissism, though, in a surprising turn (which should have alerted us to where Eastwood was going), the hero in each case is a careless opportunist who refuses to take responsibility for the havoc he creates. Even outside the Dirty Harry series, Eastwood’s characters were tainted; they might be selfish and egotistical (though never cowardly), stupidly macho (though never weak), eagerly mercenary (though never bourgeois). This candor about intentions separated him from such idealized stars of the past as Gary Cooper, and brought the wised-up modern audience closer to him. In movie after movie, he did, by implication, what any American male would do—take what was there for the taking. But, comically, he was always shocked when anyone behaved worse than he did. His indignant stare became a signature, too.
“Play Misty for Me” ends with Dave Garver knocking his lover through a window and down Big Sur’s rocky cliffs. Eastwood was clearly telling both the studios and the public that they could admire but not possess him. Universal may have thought that he would be a workhorse on the lot, but he switched to Warner Bros., where he made, among other movies, more Westerns, but only his own, eccentric kind of Westerns. In “High Plains Drifter” (1973), he is again nameless, this time a metaphysical avenger, who brings justice to a sinful town. The movie was a whimsically daft spectacle, but Eastwood did one thing straight: he embraced the noble American pictorial ideal—a man on a horse, traversing vast open spaces. He had, it seemed, a horizontal imagination. “The Outlaw Josey Wales” (1976), his first great movie as a director, is filled with one ravishing image after another of lonely figures searching for a resting place. This time, the Eastwood character has a name. Initially a rooted man, Josey Wales is a Southern farmer who loses his family to Union marauders during the Civil War. He takes revenge and then heads West, passing among a Mark Twain gallery of bunco artists and opportunists, but he also acquires, as he moves, a new, irregular family (a talkative Indian, an elderly woman, a young girl). The Western hero was no longer alone; the new family takes over an abandoned house in Texas, in effect resettling the West. If Leone emptied the West in his early movies, making Westerns that were mainly syntax and dead bodies, Eastwood, working in long paragraphs, put meaning back into the genre. Landscape as moral destiny, a miscellaneous community as the American way—these were the first signs in Eastwood of both a wider social sympathy and an incipient distaste for the conventions of genre plotting. Indifferently reviewed when it came out, “The Outlaw Josey Wales” received a stunning compliment six years later. Orson Welles, who had seen the movie four times, said on “The Merv Griffin Show,” “It belongs with the great Westerns. You know, the great Westerns of Ford and Hawks and people like that.”
Welles’s invocation of names from the past is a reminder of the singularity of Eastwood’s path. John Ford appeared in just a few silent films; Howard Hawks never acted in movies. Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, Spencer Tracy, James Stewart, Cary Grant, Humphrey Bogart, William Holden, Steve McQueen, and Sean Connery never directed a feature. John Wayne directed only twice, and badly; ditto Burt Lancaster. Paul Newman, Jack Nicholson, Warren Beatty, Robert Redford, Robert De Niro, and Sean Penn have directed a few movies each, with mixed commercial and artistic success. The comparison with Beatty is irresistible and telling. Both were pretty boys who emerged from television in the nineteen-sixties. Both were casual piano players, catnip to women. Both cast actresses they were involved with. Both were extremely ambitious, and engaged seriously in politics. Beatty has had a fascinating career as a producer and a hyperenergetic stimulator of persons and projects, but, along with his genuine achievements, the principal activity of his professional life for considerable stretches has been getting people excited about what he wants to do, rather than actually doing it. He holds endless meetings, fusses over details, keeps people waiting for years.
If Eastwood likes a story, he buys or commissions the script, moves rapidly into production, shoots the film on a short schedule and, until recently, on a modest budget. If he knows an actor or an actress’s work, he doesn’t ask for a reading. He casts quickly and dislikes extensive rehearsals and endless takes. If someone else is supposed to direct, then falters or becomes too slow or indecisive for his taste—as did Philip Kaufman on “Josey Wales,” and the writer Richard Tuggle on “Tightrope”—he pushes him aside and takes over. Like Bergman, Godard, and Woody Allen, he works hard and fast, an impatient man who likes calm and order, and relies on the same crew from picture to picture. As a professional code, this seems obvious enough, but, in recent years, who else in big-time American filmmaking but Eastwood, Allen, and, more lately, the Coen Brothers has practiced it?
“Maturity” is a high-school guidance counsellor’s word, and responsibility is something that we rarely ask of artists and entertainers. But Eastwood, by experimenting with new forms and moods, both light and dark, and by constantly altering his early self as a star, achieved both as he got older, and without becoming a stiff. Anything but. In “Tightrope” (1984), he was a cop again, this time a member of the vice squad in New Orleans, which, like San Francisco in “Dirty Harry,” is haunted by a serial killer. The difference is that the city is haunted by his pursuer as well. Eastwood’s detective, Wes Block, drawn to whores and kinky sex, scours the bars and clubs for a man who murders prostitutes, and mostly encounters his own desire. Richard Tuggle wrote the script and was credited as the director, but Eastwood did most of the work and shot the movie in Don Siegel’s tawdry, urban-anxiety mode, slowed by episodes of rapt erotic stillness. Eastwood also gave his most complex and forceful performance to date. He was fifty-four, and any trace of the pinup handsomeness of his youth was gone. The scowl had become a painful grimace, the voice thick and hoarse. He had become his own monument. A few years earlier, in Parade, Norman Mailer had granted him “a presidential face.” Yet here was the biggest star in the world implicating himself in the kind of pathologies that his earlier characters had scornfully eliminated. When icons shift ground, the world’s dream life shifts, too.
If Wes Block came close to self-immolation, was that something Eastwood himself feared? In an odd turn, as if to ward off bad dreams, he made three films in this period about self-destructive artists, including “Honkytonk Man” (1982), in which he plays an alcoholic and tubercular country singer who drives through the Oklahoma dust during the Depression and gets a tryout at the Grand Ole Opry, only to expire in a cheap hotel room, and “White Hunter, Black Heart” (1990), in which he struggles with the role of a movie director, clearly modelled on John Huston, who neglects a film in production (i.e., “The African Queen”) in order to hunt a bull elephant. Eastwood didn’t have the largeness of spirit to play Huston, but he let us know—as if we had any doubt—that reckless flamboyance was an egotistical diversion that he couldn’t afford. It had ruined an artist whom he cared for a lot more than Huston.
“Bird” (1988), Eastwood’s bio-pic devoted to Charlie Parker, was the most daring of the three movies. That picture was either art or it was nothing; those who decided two decades ago that it was nothing should take another look. Eastwood transferred his love of open country to a peculiarly tight urban spot, a studio-built Fifty-second Street, at the late-forties height of bebop. In one continuous shot, Parker (Forest Whitaker) and his new date, Chan (Diane Venora), cross the street talking, wending their way through traffic, and Parker stops to exchange half-voiced, half-intimated witticisms with two musicians, as Chan climbs the steps of her mother’s town house, a teeming jazz hangout. The densely populated sequence was worthy of Robert Altman.
Throughout the movie, Eastwood wanted the harshly lyrical, high-contrast look of early-fifties black-and-white jazz photography. With that ideal in mind, he and the cinematographer, Jack N. Green, miscalculated; they used too little light for color film, and some of the movie is very dark. Still, to an astonishing degree, the furtive, desperate tone of night people—talented, brilliant, sexually ravenous—comes through the murk. As the movie’s time frame goes back and forth through Parker’s life, and Whitaker and Venora flirt, banter, and fight in off-rhythm exchanges, the film attains a feeling of fleetingness and improvisation, in true jazz style. As played by Whitaker, Parker is a man of great sweetness, who, when he’s not on the stage, can’t stop himself from getting into trouble. In the end, addicted and helpless, he betrays people who are close to him and, finally, himself. “Bird” was made with love and a baffled sense of loss. It was the most generous and demanding of Eastwood’s movies yet.
He had become conscious of the implications of his work, and he began to add dimensions to situations that he had earlier handled simply. Return to that rocky glen in Wyoming, where William Munny has difficulty killing a man. Whatever else it is, “Unforgiven” is an argument about how to represent violence, an argument about movies. Eastwood and the screenwriter, David Webb Peoples, are the artificers here, but there’s a rival actually present in the movie, a hack writer who creates the kind of Western fictions that the Schofield Kid grew up reading. W. W. Beauchamp (Saul Rubinek), a dime novelist, appears in the nearby town of Big Whiskey with one of his fabled heroes, the raffishly ornate outlaw known as English Bob (Richard Harris). The sheriff of Big Whiskey (Gene Hackman) quickly disarms and beats up the prating Bob, and then, sentence by sentence, he deconstructs the nonsense Beauchamp has written, explaining how shootouts really happen. In effect, the sheriff, known as Little Bill, shreds the way that violence is represented in most Westerns, which is a lot closer to Beauchamp’s rubbish than it is to the wrenching mess we’ve seen in the glen. Peoples’s script is complicated, and Eastwood honors its startling turns. We may enjoy Little Bill’s scornful realism, but he’s a frightening man. If he’s the true West, the West is a nightmare. Hackman makes him jolly, rancorous, and sadistic—a man completely without honor who later beats Munny’s pal Ned Logan to death. In Little Bill, justice and order give way to brute force.
Where does that leave Eastwood’s character? Eastwood shapes his own performance as a study in rueful abnegation; at times, he looks lost and vulnerable, even sickly. Yet William Munny, however ashamed of killing, has to avenge Logan’s death. “Unforgiven” ends with him gunning down Little Bill and his friends and then riding away, in a return to the kind of familiar myth that the rest of the movie seems to reject. What, one wonders, was the use of that anti-violence business if it all comes to this? Eastwood’s murderous past characters and his regretful new temper appear to have collided on a Western street. By giving the Western extra dimensions, and by pushing the moral issues to extremes, Eastwood had exposed (inadvertently, perhaps) the limits of the genre. “Unforgiven” is both an entertainment and a contradiction, a masterpiece at war with itself.
Eastwood may have sensed that he hadn’t said all that he wanted to say about renunciation. In the lovely movie that followed, “A Perfect World” (1993), Kevin Costner’s escaped convict and murderer, having lost his desire to kill, yet unable to outrun his past, dies without a fight in an open meadow. In these two pictures, the protagonists are imprisoned in the imperatives of character, exercising, they imagine, free will from moment to moment but governed at the same time by the sullen imprint of past crimes, injuries, mistakes. The word for this kind of dramatic structure is “tragedy.” That’s what Eastwood had become capable of. The two movies had depth, nuance, a burnished and reflective nostalgia for a simplicity that was no longer possible. This became definitive in “Mystic River,” from 2003, a movie in which all of Eastwood’s late obsessions—guilt, destruction, self-destruction, vengeance—merge into a completely satisfying work of art.
In the framing of the story, you can still see some genre conventions at work. The screenwriter, Brian Helgeland, adapting the novel by Dennis Lehane, worked with the elements of a police procedural: a girl has been murdered, and Sean (Kevin Bacon), a homicide detective for the Massachusetts State Police, sets about solving the crime with his partner (Laurence Fishburne). But within this familiar structure Helgeland and Eastwood created a shadowed way of life whose roots go back twenty-five years to another crime: the kidnapping and abuse of a young boy. In the present, the grownup victim (Tim Robbins), and the two friends who watched years ago as he was driven away (Sean Penn and Bacon), are held together by a bond of shame and contempt. The working-class Boston neighborhood, with its wood-frame buildings, gray light, and tough, anxious women clinging to their men, has never recovered; it might be an ancient Greek city fallen under a curse. We are what the past has made us, and Sean Penn’s Jimmy, a neighborhood store owner and thug whose earlier life has been marked by acts of vengeance, loses his daughter and is forced to ask if, in some way, he’s responsible for her death.
To work with such glum material without falling into middlebrow dreariness requires intellectual force and a steely grip on narrative. This movie, too, turns into an argument about violence. Falling in line behind Dirty Harry and Little Bill, Jimmy is yet another guy who imagines that he alone embodies justice. He tries to avenge his daughter’s death, only to kill the wrong man. But, then, a surprise: his wife (Laura Linney), excited by his daring, pulls him into bed. Eastwood had moved past easily understood right and wrong, past the plain satisfactions of pattern. Killing for revenge is as idiotic as killing for hire, yet this act is flagrantly rewarded. From the beginning, going back to his performance in “A Fistful of Dollars,” Eastwood had shown a penchant for irony, but the end of “Mystic River” was a perverse twist worthy of a sardonic modern artist like Brecht or Fassbinder.
Eastwood had reached the summit, and, at seventy-three, he appeared to be taking stock. For years, he had played angry men who held the fort of white-male authority. Now, returning to elements from “Josey Wales,” he began to notice and even to celebrate true outsiders, people who had much less power than his own characters did. Had he become, of all things, a liberal? Probably not, at least not in any overtly political sense. It’s more likely that, as he got older, he saw his own prized values embodied in people he had essentially ignored before. Women, after all, had rarely been at the center of his movies. One can remember Verna Bloom’s tenderness in supporting roles, and, in the late seventies and early eighties, a few sassy performances by Sondra Locke, who was then Eastwood’s inamorata. In “Tightrope,” Geneviève Bujold projected a taut intelligence, and Meryl Streep had a never-met-the-right-man wistfulness in “The Bridges of Madison County.” But many of the women were predatory or adoring, and none of them, even the strong ones, quite prepared us for Hillary Swank’s pugnacious jaw and wide smile in “Million Dollar Baby” (2004). At first, the fight-club setting gives off the sour-sweat odor of defeat. As Eastwood and Morgan Freeman rag on each other, the movie seems a joke between aging friends (the lines are a duet for buzz saw and cello). But Eastwood himself turns out to be the butt: the bullheaded Maggie Fitzgerald (Swank) breaks into this second-rate male province, trains as a fighter, and pulls the snarling old man out of emotional isolation into something like fatherhood and, finally, the full humanity of mourning. Maggie could give and take a punch. The movie was less an expression of feminist awareness than a case of awed respect for a woman who was strong and enduring. (The theme was woodenly repeated in “Changeling,” from 2008, in which Angelina Jolie’s betrayed mother takes on the L.A.P.D.)
In the same way, Eastwood began to see, in minority groups, even in America’s former enemies, what he had long admired in tough white men. Certainly, no one in American movies has ever done anything quite as openhearted as Eastwood’s 2006 feat of recounting the devastating battle of Iwo Jima from both points of view. Eastwood’s critical account of the Army’s crass media exploitation of American soldiers (“Flags of Our Fathers”) took the shine off the victory. (It was lucky that Wayne, who starred in “Sands of Iwo Jima,” in 1949, didn’t live to see the picture.) Then, a few months later, he brought out “Letters from Iwo Jima,” a portrait of the Japanese, particularly the island’s military commander, General Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe), as supremely dutiful, and honorable in defeat. Shot in black-and-white, the two movies, neither of them great but both intelligent and stirring, were placed in conversation with each other as profiles of national character—dialectical partners in an imaginary but potent debate.
Part of Eastwood’s late curiosity has been directed at new aspects of himself, a superb animal inexorably growing older. Rather than fight his years, Eastwood has explicitly dramatized aging—the slowing of reflexes, the hardening of perception and will. Back in 1993, with “In the Line of Fire,” he managed, in the midst of a first-rate thriller (directed by Wolfgang Petersen), to suggest that men his age compensate for perceived weakness by overly focussing on the task at hand—a fresh insight. He didn’t revive Dirty Harry, who would have been a grimly witty old party, but Walt Kowalski, the irascible retired auto worker in “Gran Torino” (2008), is a variation on Callahan. Living in a house outside Detroit, next door to a family of Hmong refugees, Kowalski is indecently hostile—“gooks” and “slopes” are among his daily epithets—but, by degrees, he becomes impressed with the family’s insistence on discipline, and rouses himself to protect it. Who can doubt that Eastwood’s shift from loathing to compassion was an oblique rejection of the endless American rancor over immigration? The man who once walked away at the end was now gravely taking responsibility for everything, a development that was enlarged in “Invictus.” As Kowalski, Eastwood literally growled, as if teasing his limits as an actor, but Kowalski is also a true terror. Eastwood’s skull stood out from beneath his skin; his eyes were like smoldering coals. He was never a more dominating star. Ω
[David Denby is the film critic for The New Yorker. He received a B.A. from Columbia University in 1965 and a masters from its journalism school in 1966. Snark (2009) is Denby's latest book]
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