Kingdom of the Blind Pt 1

Revenge missions in the films of Clint Eastwood
by Matt Zoller Seitz  posted December 1, 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 Part 2 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.

And thine eye shall not pity; but life shall go for life, eye for eye, hand for hand, foot for foot. —Deuteronomy 19:21

Clint Eastwood's long career as both actor and director is a homestead built atop a graveyard. From his breakthrough role as The Man With No Name in Sergio Leone’s mid-’60s “Dollars” trilogy through the Dirty Harry series, High Plains Drifter (1972), Unforgiven (1992), Mystic River (2003), and Gran Torino (2008), many of his best-known films follow traumatized people on missions of revenge. Some treat revenge lightly, ritualistically—as a mere ingredient, something one expects to see in westerns and thrillers, Eastwood's signature genres. Others treat it more seriously—as a response to evil that creates more evil; as an extralegal means of seeking justice that society botched or denied; as the result of unseen cosmic forces passing judgment on humankind; as a traumatized person's desperate attempt to regain authority over a life that's spun out of control; and as metaphysical narcotic—an activity that momentarily lets emotionally numb, spiritually dead people feel alive.

All Eastwood films that deal with vengeance are torn between two impulses: to show that, in the words of Mahatma Gandhi, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind”; and to feed the nonrational, lurid, savage craving for revenge—a craving experienced by both the wronged character who seeks it and the moviegoer who lives vicariously through the avenger.

The Civil War epic The Outlaw Josey Wales showcases most of the contradictions that have defined Eastwood's career—as both actor and filmmaker—from day one. It's about a mild-mannered Missouri farmer who teaches himself gunfighting to seek revenge against “Red Leg” Kansas “Jayhawkers” (guerrillas) that murdered his family. Upon learning that the killers have joined the Union Army, Wales joins the Confederate army, the better to hunt his enemies. The plot thus depicts three concentric circles of revenge-driven bloodlust: the Confederacy vs. the Union, Missouri vs. Kansas, and Wales vs. Capt. “Red Legs” Terrell, the man who engineered his misfortune. Numbed by loss, Wales is presented, like so many vengeful characters in Eastwood films, as not fully alive—except when he's dealing with death.

But as he flees the government, Wales acquires a posse of equally damaged outsiders, slowly becoming rehumanized and even settling on a farm in Texas. Wales depicts a grief-stricken, revenge-obsessed outsider being healed by the passage of time and the forging of new relationships. When he finally gets the drop on Terrell, he has no ammo left—a symbolic touch confirming that Wales's anger is spent. Wales obsessively dry-firing his empty guns as he advances on his enemy implies that all the different revenge narratives enacted in the film are more empty rituals than worthwhile pursuits.

The title character of Don Siegel’s Dirty Harry (1971)—which made Eastwood a U.S. movie star after years of playing The Man With No Name in spaghetti westerns—is a simple as Wales is complex. Or at least he starts out that way. In the first movie, he’s a brooding, cranky loner, a good man in a rotten town, doing “every dirty job that comes along” and railing against incompetent superiors and the liberals who would coddle criminal scum. The second Dirty Harry film, Magnum Force (1973), gives Harry a tragic backstory (a murdered wife) and contrasts his spur-of-the-moment, barely legal vengeance against premeditated killings carried out by vigilante officers. The movie treats the motorcycle cops who carry out the executions as a hive-mind—human robots that dress, act, and think alike, and have almost no trace of individuality. Their cold savagery makes Harry's hot-blooded righteousness seem reasonable. They go looking for trouble; he just happens to be there when trouble happens.

That’s admittedly a slim reed on which to hang a defense of a character widely condemned as fascistic, but the series did feel compelled to highlight it—and future entries in the series would stress it more pointedly, positioning Harry as society’s reluctant, unappreciated guardian, a grim knight standing against chaos no matter what sector of society generates it. The fourth Dirty Harry film, Sudden Impact (1983), revolves around Jennifer Spencer, a gang rape survivor wiping out the scum that ruined her life and made her sister catatonic. She's Harry's female counterpart, not just because she serves as judge, jury, and executioner but because she seems at once furious and numb—an armed-and-dangerous sleepwalker.

In the Jennifer plotline—and elsewhere in Sudden Impact, and in the rest of Eastwood's filmography—it's clear that revenge doesn't satisfy a wronged character, much less provide catharsis or closure. And the film unfavorably contrasts Jennifer's reckless fury against Harry's volatile but more measured version of payback, which obeys the letter (if not always the spirit) of the law. As Dave Kehr writes in his essay “Eastwood Noir”: “Sudden Impact brings Harry 180 degrees from his original incarnation....He is now the standard-bearer of social values, of law and order over open warfare. Jennifer is the old Harry, and he recognizes her and is frightened by her.”

More concentric circles of revenge: the story of Unforgiven (1992) begins when two drunk cowboys mutilate a prostitute. After the town's sheriff, Little Bill, lets the assailants off lightly, the prostitutes pool their money and put a price on the attackers' heads. Retired killer William Munny takes up arms again to collect the reward and save his failing farm. The lynching of Munny's partner, Ned Logan, which incites the hero’s climactic assault against Little Bill and his men, is collateral damage from two wars—the whores vs. the fascistic town government, and Little Bill vs. Munny, whose existence threatens Bill's authority.

Munny's final rampage is Biblical in its ruthlessness, and it's set up like the climax of a horror film. Backed by a chorus of thunder and lightning, the looming, scar-faced gunfighter comes on like Frankenstein's monster in a Stetson. All the film's feuds merge here, sparking mass murder. In this sequence, Munny isn't just a drunk, angry killer seeking personal revenge. He's an angel of death cleansing a town of sin. The aura of unhinged righteousness recurs throughout Eastwood's work.

Other Eastwood films find ways to complicate what might otherwise have been straightforward revenge tales. Mystic River (2003) finds the father of a murdered girl seeking catharsis by trapping and killing a childhood friend he believes did the deed. His grief drowns out the question of whether the suspect actually did it. The slow-burn potboiler True Crime (2002) also deals with vengeance, but this time it's carried out by the state of California, which is about to execute the wrong man for murder. The film shows an entire society so fixated on payback that it makes a mockery of justice.

Collective responsibility and guilt also figure in the plot of High Plains Drifter (1973), about a spooky Stranger wreaking vengeance on a town that murdered its marshal for obstructing business. Eastwood's character is a demonic figure that retaliates against the lawman's murderers, terrorizing the cowardly, complicit town along the way. He repays sins Old Testament-style: rape for lust, theft for greed, death for murder; Deuteronomy on horseback. The Stranger is a literal-minded guy. By the end of the film, he has ordered the town repainted red and renamed “Hell.”

Many Eastwood movies have a self-critical aspect, a sense that Eastwood (as actor, director, or both) is examining dark impulses within himself (and humankind) and finding them troubling, pathetic, repulsive. It's the sentiment of a moral, humane, internally consistent filmmaker. Eastwood is all three—when Eastwood the icon isn't undercutting Eastwood the artist.



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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.

More articles by Matt Zoller Seitz
Author's Website: The House Next Door