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Blood truths

Clint Eastwood's long -- and ambivalent -- journey into America's violent heart.

October 12, 2003|Manohla Dargis | Times Staff Writer

The long and improbably brilliant career of Clint Eastwood has had its share of surprises, few as striking as his emergence as a serious director. Eastwood's transformation from cinematic action figure -- good for a night's entertainment and some lusty ringside catharsis -- into sanctified cinematic auteur has been a long time in coming. Rife with controversy and punctuated by the occasional flop, it hasn't been an easy or peaceful evolution. How did Dirty Harry get so clean?

On Wednesday, Eastwood's 24th feature as a director, "Mystic River," opened to great acclaim, with the filmmaker receiving some of the most effusive and respectful reviews of his career. A dirge about vengeance in America involving three men and their families, the film has been received in some quarters as the latest chapter in Eastwood's late-life turnaround from thug to director emeritus, with some former detractors grudgingly admitting that the old man wasn't half bad behind the camera. According to this new critical orthodoxy, Eastwood's importance as a director isn't just a function of his refined technique and deepened artistry, but a professedly more mature attitude toward violence. In the new orthodoxy Eastwood now matters, in part, because he's paying penance for his violent past.

But "Mystic River" isn't just about how violence passes from man to man like a virus, ravaging each one and his family -- it's about the kick, the thrill and the rejuvenating power of violence. The film's tag -- "We bury our sins, we wash them clean" -- could come from any number of the director's movies; it's Eastwood's obsession and persistent, ambivalent theme.

Gripped in the logic of what Richard Slotkin, a scholar of American history, calls "regeneration through violence," his movies always have derived their power from violence that's equally destructive and restorative. And it's violence that has made them beloved and despised. That many now see the newer films as apologies for violence raises the question: Is it Eastwood who's revised his course -- or are the revisionists sitting in the audience?

GRIM VISION

Movies are fantasies, but they're our fantasies; Hollywood manufactures desire, but we help run the factory. The fact that we like fantasies in which we not only fight the good fight but also always win explains Eastwood's popularity to a point. His movies appeal to our love of heroes, but from the beginning there has been something different about Eastwood's avengers -- something unforgiving. Part of this comes from his early influences. He became a star in movies directed by Sergio Leone and Don Siegel; the former made art-house exploitation movies, the latter old-fashioned pulp fiction. More important, though, Eastwood consistently has exposed the contradiction of a people caught between ideals and actions, dreams of benevolence and a lust for blood. No other director working in this country today has peered so long -- and to such a deeply ambivalent end -- into this dark part of our American soul.

Nothing if not brand-conscious, Eastwood has played a variation of the same taciturn stoic for decades. Cannily aware of the mythic power of movies, he long ago transcended his limitations as an actor by turning his face into a mask of implacable cool. (No matter how different the stories, the mask rarely slips. When he pastes on a smile, as he does in his underrated 1980 comedy "Bronco Billy," the effect almost is as scary as Dirty Harry's grimace.)

The mask became his signature, and because it revealed so little -- a twitch of contempt, a shadow of doubt -- it became a screen onto which audiences could project wildly different fantasies, some straight from the id. The durability of Eastwood's iconic presence -- at once avenger, savior, grim reaper and always the last man standing -- ensured fan loyalty and some lashing derision, but it also could obscure the basic contradictions in his work.

For a man who likes to wave the flag in his movies, Eastwood has an unusually grim vision of our country. Taken together, his films depict an America dominated by violent crime, sexual predators, racial antagonism, alienation, grief and fury. The movies often center on loners who in one way or another come up against a deeply corrupt system and somehow always mete out extreme payback. The loners usually are white cops, as in Eastwood's enjoyably whacked-out 1977 thriller "The Gauntlet," but the same type shows up as a black musician in the director's 1988 film about Charlie Parker, "Bird." (Parker dies, of course, but his payback is his legacy.)

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