Kingdom of the Blind Pt 2

Revenge missions in the films of Clint Eastwood
by Matt Zoller Seitz  posted December 3, 2009
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This video essay is part of a series on Clint Eastwood, the 2009 honoree of the Musuem of the Moving Image's Annual Salute. Click here for Pt 1 of the essay.

This video is offered in two formats. To watch the piece with written text onscreen, and without narration, click the video on the left in the right-hand column. To watch it with voice-over narration, click the one on the right.

Clint Eastwood owes a great deal to Sergio Leone, who jump-started the actor's movie career with the Dollars trilogy of “spaghetti westerns.” His collaboration with Leone gave him the seeds of his screen persona. It also foretold many of Eastwood’s obsessions as a director. Obsession No. 1 is revenge.

The most unusual treatment of the subject occurs in the second Dollars film, For a Few Dollars More (1965), in which Eastwood's Man With No Name teams up with a bounty hunter, Col. Mortimer, to track down a bandit named Indio. While flashbacks reveal that Indio raped Mortimer's sister and killed her lover, Leone and his co-screenwriters complicate the audience's feelings, portraying Indio not as a stock bad guy, but a man who acted from dark compulsion—and who uses opium to dull the memory of his crimes. Eastwood's post-Leone films are likewise interested in the psychic toll exacted by violence and corruption on heroes, victims, and society. Eastwood's violence is also Leone-esque, mixing operatic exaggeration with a down-and-dirty quality reminiscent of exploitation films and battlefield atrocity photos. When wronged characters finally get revenge, they receive only dark, momentary pleasure from it—nothing lasting, much less healing.

The undercurrents of despair, numbness and ugliness in Eastwood's movies demand that they be taken seriously, as psychic X-rays of the species. Should they be? For all Leone's sensitivity to fine shadings of feeling, the Mortimer-Indio conflict in For a Few Dollars More is still settled—finito!—with a bullet. Eastwood’s post-Leone pictures are similarly loyal to genre basics, whether the film is a star vehicle directed by someone else or a labor of love helmed by Eastwood himself.

Eastwood's vengeance-driven heroes are often photographed to look scary—wreathed in shadow; silhouetted against flame or harsh backlight. The horror movie embellishments sometimes play like attempts to art up his Leone deadpan. Most Eastwood heroes, like most Leone heroes, are emotionally closed-off and physically almost invulnerable, making impossible shots, evading volleys of enemy bullets and coming back from near death (sometimes actual death) to set things right. And for all the serious nastiness with which Eastwood's star vehicles and directorial efforts depict brutality, there's still an undertone of wish fulfillment, plus glib catchphrases: the “Do I feel lucky?” monologue (Dirty Harry); “A man’s gotta know his limitations” (Magnum Force); “Go ahead. Make my day” (Sudden Impact); “There’s nothing like a nice piece of hickory” (Pale Rider). High Plains Drifter, arguably Eastwood the director's darkest statement on human nature, has been called High Noon in Hell. A perverse riff on Leone's “Man With No Name” trilogy, it portrays a society so weak, venal, and cruel that it deserves any punishment Eastwood's “Stranger” can inflict. But it's also a macho power trip, starring Eastwood as an hombre who kills and even rapes with impunity—and who can blast multiple foes before they can get off a single shot.

Eastwood is hardly unique in his wish to have his cake and eat it too. That impulse has driven popular art forever. Nevertheless, any argument for Eastwood as a great American artist should start by admitting that his need to have it both ways tends to muddy even his finer work, such as Gran Torino. The film presents itself as the ultimate deconstruction of the vengeful gunfighter image that Eastwood has embodied for nearly five decades. Eastwood's character, a cranky racist retiree named Walt Kowalski, is mellowed by gruff affection for Hmong neighbors he once loathed. He even fights a vicious gang on their behalf. His payback—which takes the form of self-sacrifice rather than mass murder—is as surprising a twist as Sean Penn's Mystic River avenger killing the wrong person. But Walt is still the prototypical Eastwood superman, just older and slower—and Gran Torino spares no opportunity to show him terrorizing and thrashing strong men one-fifth his age.

The Outlaw Josey Wales, arguably Eastwood’s richest film as a director, is likewise conflicted. In the climax, Wales dry-fires his pistols at Capt. Terrell, the man responsible for his family's murder, then holsters his weapons, his actions suggesting truce as an alternative to violence. But westerns can’t end that way—at least Eastwood’s westerns can’t—so Terrell draws his saber, and Wales turns it around on him and runs the bastard through. It’s self-defense rather than revenge—and one could defend it dramatically on grounds that Terrell died because he, unlike Wales, was incapable of evolution. But the result is the same: the bad guy gets it. “Live by the sword, die by the sword” is another way of saying, “Give the audience what it wants.”

Eastwood's wisecracking angel of death persona is so familiar—and so beloved by audiences—that when he seriously critiques it, as he did in Unforgiven, it doesn't always register. People see Eastwood in a cowboy hat and think “entertainment.” This writer saw the film three times in theaters. Two of those times the audience cheered Munny's vengeance—the most horrific rampage in a studio movie since Taxi Driver—as if it were Terminator 2. Is Eastwood an exploitation filmmaker with aspirations to importance, or an artist who uses violent action to entice viewers into experiencing his films' more complex aspects? Is he making art, or just entertainment with personality?

Such distinctions may be a dead end; Eastwood would surely never draw them. And in any event, the actor-director isn't just aware of his inconsistencies and mysteries, he foregrounds them in his films. The most intriguing aspect of Eastwood's career is Eastwood himself.

 

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video essay  |  Clint Eastwood

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THE AUTHOR

Matt Zoller Seitz is a writer and filmmaker whose debut feature, the romantic comedy Home, is available through Netflix and Amazon. His writing on film and television has appeared in The New York Times, New York Press, and The Star Ledger, among other places. He is also the founder of The House Next Door, a movie and TV criticism website.

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Author's Website: The House Next Door