It took me years to learn how to watch a Clint Eastwood movie. For one thing, I tended to watch them far apart and to rely on memory of earlier films to prepare myself for current ones. But given the gaps in time between viewings, I should have been more suspicious of how I remembered them. I saw Unforgiven when it first came out on videotape, but I was in my late teens then. It seemed plodding and clunky, and, to my jaded young eyes, old. That original impression solidified in my mind, tarnishing my general impression of Eastwood as a director. (Plodding, clunky, old.) I skipped the Eastwood movies that seemed skippable, the ones that didn’t get much attention. Eastwood was a creature from another era, and I was sure he was just a dumb cowboy at heart. Sure, he’d won Oscars, but that just cemented the idea of Eastwood as the embodiment of middlebrow mediocrity. “Most of the good directors,” I’d say to anyone who would listen, “don’t win that award.”
It’s easy to underestimate Eastwood, even if you’re not relying on vague memories and snobbery. His image as the embodiment of vigilante conservatism slithers through the collective cultural consciousness. He’s Dirty Harry, he’s the Man with No Name. Our assumptions deliver him to us as what we expect him to be. The tough guy, the grizzled guy, the man’s man, the white savior, the relic.
Thus, it wasn’t until Gran Torino that I could say I really watched an Eastwood movie. The ones I’d seen before were films I looked at as the films I’d expected them to be. But Gran Torino shocked me into seeing it. I’d seen reviews belittling the movie, and I expected it to be a not-quite-vaguely racist heap of claptrap. I don’t remember even when I decided to watch it, or why. But I did.
I didn’t know what to make of Gran Torino on that first viewing, because it sneaked into my amygdala and splattered feelings in all directions. The overwrought Christ imagery at the end was a bit much, but still … the images after that, of Thao driving off into his own, inherited America, pulled true tears from my eyes. This was not claptrap. Eastwood was up to something. And the film was, in its own way, and on its own terms, more subversive than most Hollywood films ever dare to be. (I’ve explored my response to Gran Torino more fully in a previous video essay.)
I watched Gran Torino again and again, seeking the meaning that lodged in the bit of free space between my assumptions, the meaning that had come from being so unexpectedly moved by a movie I’d expected to detest.
With the fervor of a convert, I binged my way through Eastwood’s oeuvre. Again and again I saw what had so fascinated me in Gran Torino: the way Eastwood used his own iconicity against itself, the way he presented masculinity and violence as intoxicating elixirs of destruction, the way he danced (sometimes awkwardly) on a tightrope between exploiting our basest desires and blowing them all to hell.
Drucilla Cornell’s Clint Eastwood and Issues of American Masculinity provided me with ways of working through what Eastwood’s films can mean. I think Cornell sometimes gives the films a bit too much credit, because sometimes these movies are as symptomatic of the world into which they were released as they are critical of it. (But we need to see symptoms. Or, rather, we need symptoms to be made visible. How do you diagnose a disease without them?) Nonetheless, her central point convinced me: if we want to think about the force of American masculinity, the films of Clint Eastwood are a rich and vivid source.
Consider violence, a feature common to most of Eastwood’s films. These are not pacifist manifestos—violence is shown to be sometimes necessary, sometimes useful. But usually it is also destructive and corrupting. It gets people what they want in the short term, or it saves their lives, but the cost is great, and their lives are shrunken and shattered. This is true even in the Dirty Harry films, where we may join the fantasy of wearing the wisecracking, bureaucracy-hating vigilante’s mask of bravado, but would we want to live as Harry lives, to become what he became? As Faust could tell you, fantasies come with a hefty price.
We need to pay close attention to the conclusions of Eastwood’s movies, particularly the ones he directs and stars in, because these films allow him to configure and reconfigure his iconicity. From Play Misty for Me to Gran Torino, he has played jazz riffs on the idea of “Clint Eastwood,” repeating and revising the figure he embodies. Nowhere are the riffs more poignantly played than in The Outlaw Josey Wales (the subject of a previous video essay of mine), one of Eastwood’s most complex and subtle studies of the avenging male hero. The ending is where the meanings swirl old gestures together into something new—the violent hero, ruined by war, exhausted by anger, turns away from killing and rides off into a sunset. He’s quietly wounded, likely bleeding to death. Like so many Eastwood characters, he has saved a ragtag community that now has no space for him. He is the demon that must be expelled. In that, he is less Faust than Mephisto.
Again and again, Eastwood’s characters end up going off into ambiguity. What are we to make, for instance, of the conclusion of Million Dollar Baby? It ends with a sort of triumph and grace, yes, but what are we, the observers, left with at this moment? The film’s story positions us to sympathize with Frankie, to feel the dilemma he feels, but should we conclude from our sympathy that Frankie did the right thing? That death is better than handicapped life? I can fully believe a character like Maggie would, in those circumstances and at that point in her treatment, want what Frankie gave her—that she did, indeed, see it as triumph. But I don’t know if we’re required to agree. The film wraps us in its emotions, but then steps back and at the end leaves us with images of a lost man, a lonely man, an exiled angel of death. Here, Eastwood’s violent character isn’t exiled or exorcised from a community he saved and that will, presumably, prosper without him. Here, he is simply exiled. What meaning we make of that is our own.
Matthew Cheney’s work has been published by English Journal, One Story, Web Conjunctions, Strange Horizons, Failbetter.com, Ideomancer, Pindeldyboz, Rain Taxi, Locus, The Internet Review of Science Fiction and SF Site, among other places, and he is the former series editor for Best American Fantasy. He teaches English, Women’s Studies, and Communications & Media Studies at Plymouth State University.