Several weeks ago I wrote this snarky little piece for Vulture, creating a pseudo-mathematical formula that predicts whether a Clint Eastwood-directed film will be any good or not. It was fun to do, a lot of people read it, and I got a lot of good feedback about it, so I don’t regret writing it. (I also think that, as far as the breakdown of Clint’s films goes, it’s mostly accurate, especially near the top.)
But I still felt like taking a cold shower after filing it, because, well, Clint Eastwood happens to be one of my favorite directors, even if I do often find myself on the opposing side these days when debating some of his more recent films: I can’t say I liked Gran Torino, I was disappointed by Invictus, and I think Million Dollar Baby, while good, is wildly, wildly overrated. (Sorry, Scorsese-Oscar-Epic-Haters, but The Aviator wuz robbed.) Then again, I love Letters from Iwo Jima, and I actually quite like Flags of Our Fathers, which I wish I could have found a way to rank higher on the Vulture Eastwood Index. (Same goes for The Changeling, which also has its moments, even if Angelina Jolie’s performance is too all over the place for me.)
I worried some would chastise me for dissing films like Baby and Torino in the piece, but it turned out many of the comments on the site actually came from people saying I was giving Eastwood too much credit. (Some folks really don’t like The Bridges of Madison County, it turns out. Their loss.) Maybe, after a middling response to Invictus and fairly vicious reviews of Hereafter, Eastwood’s status as National Treasure has diminished in the eyes of many, at least as far as his directorial efforts are concerned.
But here’s the thing: The piece prompted me to revisit a lot of these films again – I started watching them before writing it, and then just kept on watching after I filed it. (Maybe it was partly to compensate for not being able to afford the huge-ass "Clint Eastwood: 35 Films, 35 Years" DVD Boxed Set that Warner put out last month.) And I found myself marveling at the work all over again. Furthermore, a couple of observations occurred to me about Eastwood the director that might be worth sharing here.
Eastwood’s films often center on a character having an identity crisis without really knowing it. In the Westerns, this allowed him to give new spin to the Stone-Faced Stranger motif he took from his films with Sergio Leone: Whether it’s the Outlaw Josey Wales, whose thirst for revenge and inability to bury the axe after the Civil War prevents him from embracing his patchwork family; or Preacher in Pale Rider, who tries and fails to give up violence (or, well, at least guns); or William Munny in Unforgiven, who seeks the life of an anonymous family man, then tries to convince himself that he’s doing this final act of killing for money and the sake of a whore’s honor, and finally has to realize that he’s a “meaner-than-hell, cold-blooded, damn killer” after all.
This idea is perhaps most clearly rendered in White Hunter Black Heart, which is basically a movie about how John Huston (or John Wilson, the film’s Huston stand-in, played by Eastwood himself) did everything he could to deny the fact that he was, essentially, a pampered, Hollywood director: The whole film works its way towards his acceptance of his duty and his job and calling action on the first shot of The African Queen; note how his director’s chair has “Director” written on it, instead of his name, which I think would have been more common. What is supposed to be the film’s chief flaw, Eastwood’s bizarre performance, with his borderline ridiculous Huston accent, doesn’t really work against it, in this light. I doubt this was intentional, but the hesitancy of Eastwood’s accent actually enhances the character’s strange self-negation: We never really get a handle on who this guy is.
It’s not always the character played by Eastwood who has to face this personal reckoning: In A Perfect World, Kevin Costner spends the whole film trying to exorcise the demons of his own childhood by bonding with the young boy he’s kidnapped, but in the film’s final, heartbreaking scene, he has to come to terms with the fact that he’s an escaped convict, a killer, and a kidnapper – and that he can’t undo his terrible childhood.
In The Bridges of Madison County, the identity crisis is split into three segments: First, Francesca Johnson (Meryl Streep) begins to realize that her life as a mother and wife in small-town Iowa has forced her to deny her true self, a realization she makes thanks to the film’s initially idealized depiction of Eastwood’s Robert Kincaid (BTW, I happen to think this film contains one of his more unique spins on the Western’s stranger-riding-into-town motif). Then, however, the tables are turned, and Francesca confronts Kincaid over his rootless, supposedly womanizing wandering. At this point, we realize that he is in fact a somewhat pathetic and lonely character: Not so much the confident, romantic drifter-photographer who has seen the world, but a guy who has spent his whole life failing to connect with anyone or commit to anything. He’s willing to commit in this case, and the two begin to prepare to run off together. But there’s a final twist, which is that Francesca comes to terms with the fact that, after all that, she is a mother and a wife. She’s in denial about the world and the dreams she gave up, yes, but by belatedly confronting this denial, she can finally choose to give them up. (Leaving Eastwood’s character condemned to a life of loneliness, a fact made exquisitely clear in that final series of non-glances they have at a traffic light, as Francesca and her husband wait in their truck behind Kincaid’s in the rain. Eastwood has never allowed himself to be more vulnerable than in this film.)
And sometimes the identity crisis is happening to something greater than just one character. It could be argued that Invictus is not so much about Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) or Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon) but about South Africa itself, seen in the film's initial scenes as a totally fractured place with no unity whatsoever; many of its white inhabitants refuse to even acknowledge the country’s flag. The film depicts the process whereby the citizens realize they all belong to the same nation. (That’s the part of Invictus I like; unfortunately, making a film where a country is the lead character can sometimes result in your actual characters becoming one-dimensional signifiers rather than full-blooded people.)
Now, the idea of characters growing and transforming and coming to realizations about themselves is obviously nothing new in popular cinema, but in Eastwood’s films there’s often an added dimension, because of the director’s own odd status as an action star with a complicated relationship to genre. We already know that his is a divided cinema, and that for much of his career he followed the tried and true "one-for-them, one-for-me" approach to filmmaking: Thus, Firefox was followed by Honkytonk Man, Pale Rider was followed by Heartbreak Ridge, etc. (Of course, all during this time he was also starring in films directed by others.)
However, once Eastwood became Academy Award-winning Director Clint Eastwood, he didn’t abandon genre so much as turn it on its head: In his later crime thrillers, for example – (the sublimely underrated) Absolute Power, the wildly uneven) True Crime, (the interestingly forgettable) Blood Work – he pays comically little attention to the actual genre elements. True Crime probably features one of the most easily-solved mysteries of all time, with each clue telegraphed in almost absurd fashion: When a grandmother fingers a locket her slain grandson gave her, our man Clint cuts to a close-up of the locket so obvious and awkward that when the actual revelation of the object’s significance comes later on in the film, the audience experiences a sudden feeling of déjà vu. These films are more interested in other things: Absolute Power turns out to be not so much a movie about a thief (Eastwood) who witnesses the President of the United States (Gene Hackman) killing his mistress, but a movie about the relationship between that same thief and his estranged daughter (Laura Linney). True Crime turns out to be about how Eastwood’s jaded, womanizing journalist Steve Everett has spent his life throwing away the things everyone else around him desperately clings to: It’s hard not to be moved when Eastwood juxtaposes a heartbreaking scene of Death Row inmate Frank Beechum (Isaiah Washington) tearfully saying goodbye to his daughter with scenes of Everett trying to shirk responsibility for his own young daughter.
What the hell is going on here? Eastwood seems in these films to abandon the “one-for-them, one-for-me” formula in favor of something closer to “one-for-them-but-secretly-one-for-me.” (Hey, it worked in Unforgiven.) Many have observed that Eastwood, particularly during his mid-to-late period films, has worked in the mold of one of those classical American directors who had to slave away within the studio system but found ways to smuggle their own themes and obsessions into assembly-line-produced films. That’s partly right, but this is a very different time, and Eastwood, at least for the past couple of decades, has had plenty of clout (and, of course, plenty of money). He didn’t need to go slumming around in pulp thrillers. I’d argue that he wanted to make these genre films, and that he wanted to do them in such a way as to downplay the genre elements. So, in a way, the onscreen identity crises of his characters seem to mirror the offscreen identity crisis of his cinema, and of his persona. This isn’t a case of a director trying to carve out a place for himself within an unforgiving system. Eastwood has never been at odds with the studios. He’s been at odds with himself.