Why is Clint Eastwood Performing Penance?


After watching several films directed by Clint Eastwood, I began to see patterns exhibited by each film’s main characters.  This struck me when I watched Unforgiven.

While I was looking for the seminal Westerns of yesteryear, Unforgiven kept cropping up.  After watching The Dollars Trilogy, in which Clint Eastwood kicks a lot of ass as The Man with No Name, his role in Unforgiven was striking. In the film, which he also directed, Eastwood plays Bill Munny, a retired assassin brought back into the game when a bounty shows up that can help his struggling family.

Eastwood in his film, Unforgiven.

Eastwood in his film, Unforgiven.

Munny’s charge is to kill two men responsible for cutting up a prostitute.  He goes out with the help of his former partner Ned (Morgan Freeman), and the young kid who brought him the job, The Schofield Kid.  But when they assault the first man, Ned finds he’s tired of the killing life and leaves early. The Schofield Kid then kills the other man, but admits that he’s never killed anyone (earlier he claimed to have killed five) and can’t stomach the killing business either.  Munny’s is left to chug whiskey alone (after abstaining throughout the whole film) when he discovers Ned’s dead baby, Ned’s dead.  Some killin’ needs gettin’ done and Munny’s gotta do it.

Compared to Eastwood’s previous roles as The Man with No Name and Dirty Harry, Unforgiven provides the anti-thesis to the icons he helped create.  This time around, killing doesn’t come easy and the consequences catch up to everyone.  Not to mention the different styling of the shoot outs, in which luck predicts who bites a bullet.  As Gene Hackman’s character Little Bill Daggett says earlier in the film, it isn’t who can draw the fastest, but the guy who can be cool who wins a gunfight.  A guy asks what if the other guy is faster and has a steady aim.  “Then you’re dead.”  Eastwood isn’t interested in glorifying violence, just in reality.

Flags of Our Fathers (also directed by Eastwood) operates in the same manner.  Sure, the storming of Iwo Jima reminds you of Producer Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998), but the similarities stop after the beach is secured.  The film centers around three men who are burned into the American psyche when they are photographed raising a flag on the island.  The picture allows the men to return home, where they are celebrated as “heroes” and used to sell war bonds to keep the men on the frontline supplied.  But not all of them feel like heroes.  Here again, Eastwood seems interested in deconstructing myths of a genre, toning down glorifications (and even deifications) of those who fight and die in war.

Now, I didn’t just combine these two films because they were both directed by Clint Eastwood.  I wanted to illustrate a point about all of Eastwood’s films: his more famous films detail some sort of penance that characters are performing (Unforgiven, Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, Flags of Our Fathers, Gran Torino). In films in which Eastwood also stars, he usually plays a former killer (Unforgiven, Gran Torino) or does killing in the film (Unforgiven, Million Dollar Baby).

Before continuing, I think it’s good to define “penance.”  Merriam Webster defines it as an act of self-abasement, mortification, or devotion performed to show sorrow or repentance for sin.  So, by showcasing films with penance as a leading theme, is there something personally that Eastwood is carrying on his conscience or is trying to undo what he did in earlier films?

Chicago rapper Lupe Fiascos latest album, The Cool

Allow me to explain: Lupe Fiasco’s latest album, The Cool, discusses the evils of the world in terms of The Cool.  The Cool is just that, anything that we think of as “cool.”  In the song “Put You On Game,” The Cool identifies itself:

I am the American Dream

The rape of Africa, the undying machine

The overpriced medicine, the murderous regime

The tough guy’s front and the one behind the scene

Nice car?  The Cool.  Godfather gangsters?  The Cool.  Have lots of money as a banker on Wall Street?  The Cool.  The Cool does not abide by racial or class distinctions.  It is all around us; it is that which feeds our ego and thus destroys our world.

And Eastwood’s previous work is dripping with The Cool.  From The Man with No Name to Dirty Harry, when you think of Eastwood, you’re thinking of The Cool.  And Eastwood’s work since Unforgiven seems to reflect a conscious decision to move away from making films based on The Cool; that which helped his career become what it is today.  When Walt Kowalski in Gran Torino goes to take care of the gangs harassing his neighbors, you’re eagerly anticipating Eastwood’s badass blowout, with bullets and blood by the boatload.  Except that’s not what happens.  Same with Unforgiven, whose shootout is less about who has The Cool on their side, but who has luck.

It’s hard to say for sure if Eastwood is performing penance for something he personally feels convicted about, or just professionally, as someone who fed The Cool and worries his legacy will only be of bullets and no heart.  And I don’t know if Eastwood is as good as everyone chalks him up to be (I think his acting is pretty bad in some of these critically acclaimed films and thought Gran Torino was like a student film), but this deliberate move away from The Cool is to be admired. And regardless of the motive, he’s weakening The Cool and is allowing other types of male identity to be accepted without toting a pistol.

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One response to “Why is Clint Eastwood Performing Penance?

  1. Pingback: “Hereafter” surprisingly insipid « The Filmsmith

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