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Promo image of Clint Eastwood in Magnum Force (1973)

The Function and Effects of Violence in Film

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Eastwood received Academy Awards for Best Director and Best Picture for 1992’s Unforgiven. Written by David Webb Peoples, Unforgiven is an open wound of a movie. The big themes of Eastwood’s earlier works—the futility of war and the soul-dulling business of vengeance—join to grimly examine the function and effects of violence in film. Two expository texts on screen frame the film as the story of Will Munny (Eastwood), a gunslinger whose late wife’s innate goodness sat at odds with his history of bad acts. Their supposed moral incompatibility is the question that begins and ends the film, calling viewers’ attention to our peculiar cultural attraction to outlaws.

Many scenes of the exceptional screenplay question the way in which Western legends never quite live up to the facts that inspire them. The foremost example, which unites every character, is the distress caused when the threat or fantasy of violence is realized. Munny’s soul has been long compromised. And from the moment he, Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman) and the “Schofield Kid” (Jaimz Woolvett) set out to avenge the mutilation of a young prostitute, the foundation of their mission is flawed and not justifiable, regardless of the codes that permit their behavior. Munny, permanently unforgiven, kills because he can’t turn back. When given a chance to kill, Logan freezes up, suddenly impotent. The youngest of the crew, the Schofield Kid, follows through on his mission only to be emotionally wrecked from the experience. Having romanticized and idealized Munny’s violent past, he swears to never kill again, but the damage is already done.

Cinematically, Eastwood contributes a critique of violence every bit as effective as Sam Peckinpah’s critical stylization of violence in his own Westerns. Rather than use slow motion or other effects to concretize the violence for viewers’ scrutiny, Eastwood has his actors/characters pause before the moment of the kill. One might call this a “mortal pause” (to paraphrase Larry P. Gross, John Stuart Katz and Jay Ruby’s phrase “moral pause”). It’s a moment of deliberation distinct from the standard tension-generating delay associated with the Western duel.

Each mortal pause is a chance for the avenger to choose not to kill and an opportunity for the viewer to question what, exactly, we’re cheering on when we root for a Western hero. This investigation of the morality of film violence is Unforgiven‘s foremost strength, one that is discussed in supplementary material on the Blu-ray disc. In a making-of documentary, narrator Hal Holbrook says the film’s violence is “...never random. It has its own fatal logic.” Gene Hackman, who won an Academy Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role for his performance as villain Little Bill Daggett, says he “swore he would never be involved in a picture with this much violence in it”, but that eventually he came to understand the purpose of it within the screenplay.

Eastwood’s next directorial effort is A Perfect World (1993), in which he also appears in a supporting role. Following Unforgiven, it’s another film that explores the legacy of violence. In this case, however, the subject matter is the father-son relationship. Although there are no actual father-son pairs on screen together amongst the main characters, A Perfect World is one of the finest American films on the subject. John Lee Hancock’s screenplay examines the potential for mutual destructiveness between the familial violence of an abusive home and the institutional violence of the corrections system. As a criminologist says in the movie, “in a perfect world” this type of violence and its effects wouldn’t arise. Yet in this story world, there is no perfect foundation. There is brokenness. Fathers abandon sons, sons are sent away from fathers, and there are no easy remedies for the resulting gaps of experience.

Kevin Costner stars as Robert “Butch” Haynes, an escaped convict who takes a young boy (T.J. Lowther’s “Phillip ‘Buzz’ Perry”) hostage and threatens to drive to Alaska in order to escape the law. The film is careful not to idealize Butch, who is certainly guilty of committing crimes. He does, however, open up a new world for Buzz, a boy whose father is not around and whose life has to date lacked any adventure.

Unlike Unforgiven‘s relationship between Munny and “Schofield Kid”, which results in the shattered illusions of outlaw life and a destroyed spirit, there’s a sense that Buzz will positively benefit from his days on the road with Butch. And despite a late-film detour into his darker nature, Butch finds some sort of ironic redemption in his concluding scenes with Buzz.  Costner and Lowther are extraordinary in their roles, and the film succeeds largely thanks to the believable bond they experience on the road.

In 2000, Eastwood greets the new millennium with Space Cowboys, a movie in which four former United States Air Force pilots go to outer space to repair a Soviet satellite. Both the satellite and the mission turn out to be more dangerous than originally described. Space Cowboys, directed by Eastwood, has a similar structure to Firefox in that the first half is preparation for an action-oriented mission and the second half is the action of the mission. Yet the tone is less serious, as Eastwood, Tommy Lee Jones, James Garner, and Donald Sutherland play the four aging pilots in whom NASA (and by extension all of America) places its trust.

None of the humor in Space Cowboys is very sophisticated. But the film is more substantial and involves higher stakes than present-day films like the Grown Ups series, in which a group of comic actors gathers to acknowledge middle-age and to resist growing up. Space Cowboys achieves some poignancy on the subjects of retirement, illness, and regret. The end of NASA’s Space Shuttle Program in 2011 has added a tone of nostalgia to most films involving space missions. This is especially true of Space Cowboys, because that nostalgia heightens/is heightened by its existing theme of longing for a second chance at greatness.

Mystic River (2003) is an adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s novel, and it begins a four-film series that represents the most accomplished and awarded filmmaking streak of Eastwood’s directing career. In Mystic River, the effects of a traumatic childhood event haunt the lives of three Boston men. Years ago, Dave Boyle (Tim Robbins) was abducted and sexually abused by two predators. His friends Sean Devine (Kevin Bacon) and Jimmy Markum (Sean Penn) were present when he was abducted. Despite the boys’ vague awareness that the abductors didn’t seem like the authority figures they pretended to be, none had the understanding/power to prevent the abduction from occurring. In the present day, when Jimmy’s daughter is killed, each man is increasingly isolated in his distinct social position and its associated demeanor. Dave’s debilitating trauma returns with a vengeance, detective Sean is committed to finding the murderer, and ex-convict Jimmy operates on the other side of the law to solve the case himself.

Nominated for multiple Academy Awards, and winning in categories of Best Supporting Actor (Robbins) and Best Actor (Penn), Mystic River offers three perspectives on the same crime. For most of the running time, none of the men has a total awareness of what happened the night the girl was killed. Yet their shared history (especially Dave’s abduction) creates suspicions and predispositions that blind them to the facts.

A sad irony runs throughout. Most of the complications stem from an inability or unwillingness to understand the effects of the abduction. As Jimmy (perhaps like the audience) becomes increasingly certain of his suspect’s guilt, there’s an overarching blindness that threatens to doom the three families involved. The themes of Unforgiven reappear in Mystic River, in which retribution proves to be thoroughly unsatisfying and tragically misdirected. And the influence of Mystic River has since been felt in Gone Baby Gone (2007), another Lehane adaptation and the feature-length directorial debut of Ben Affleck. At this point, it’s a good guess to predict that Affleck is modeling his career as a producer/director on Eastwood.

If Unforgiven and Mystic River are the open wounds of this set, 2004’s Million Dollar Baby is its sucker punch. Written by Paul Haggis, who adapted F.X. Toole’s Rope Burns, Eastwood’s film was the recipient of Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress (Hilary Swank), and Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Morgan Freeman). Most sports dramas share a traditional formula for emotional manipulation. And Million Dollar Baby does deliver a fairly predictable set of characters and narrative expectations, albeit with tremendous acting, lighting and directing. There’s an underdog boxer (Swank’s “Maggie Fitzgerald”), a reluctant trainer (Eastwood’s “Frankie Dunn”), a sage (Freeman’s “Eddie ‘Scrap-Iron’ Dupris”), and an evil opponent (Lucia Rijker’s “Billie ‘The Blue Bear’”). Fitzgerald grows from a non-entity at the gym to a celebrated fighter, never letting Dunn’s grizzled perspective or the threat of opponents like the Blue Bear ruin her optimism.

Yet after going through these motions, which are executed about as well as any sports drama could ever hope to achieve, the film takes a detour into a level of bleakness rarely experienced in mainstream American cinema. It is common for a sports film to go into its third act with high stakes for competition, but Million Dollar Baby chooses a different direction. Fitzgerald is paralyzed during her fight with the Blue Bear, and the final act of the film is about the extinguishment of her previously unfailing spirit. The decision Fitzgerald asks Dunn to make is one that compromises his own soul.

The concluding events of Million Dollar Baby involve choosing between life and death, and Letters from Iwo Jima (2006) transplants that same issue to a different time (1944-1945) and place (Iwo Jima). It has been described as a “revisionist” war film, but that’s not an entirely fair assessment. The film is a companion to Eastwood’s Flags of our Fathers (2006) (not included in this set). Together, they portray both sides of the Battle of Iwo Jima, and Letters from Iwo Jima makes a convincing argument for the need to look beyond mere “sides” when considering the effects of war.   

As an American film about the experiences of Japanese soldiers during the war, Letters from Iwo Jima takes on the difficult task of cinematic cultural translation and succeeds brilliantly. Special features on the Blu-ray disc detail how screenwriter Iris Yamashita, story writer Paul Haggis, actor Ken Watanabe and others ensured that the historical events, figures, and language were all represented accurately. Eastwood’s directorial skill has never been better, and this film represents the pinnacle of his concern for the role of the individual in war. He shows the audience the humanity within conflict, so often framed (especially in war films) as occurring between monolithic, mostly faceless forces.

Like Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line, Letters from Iwo Jima is attuned to the families left behind, the individual sacrifices made, and the overwhelming confusion of carrying out a national duty not fully understood or felt on a personal level. The point of the film is not to reconfigure concepts of good and evil, but to present distinct moments within a specific battle as opportunities to carry out either force, regardless of “side”. War might be futile, but even in war there are ways to choose life in the midst of death. No scene in Letters from Iwo Jima illustrates this more powerfully than the one in which a number of soldiers are ordered to commit suicide with grenades. Private First Class Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya) cannot understand how his death will serve the Emperor. As he continues to survive under extreme circumstances, he becomes a source of living hope within a hopeless institution that sees death as the highest purpose.

Gran Torino (2008) is the last essential film of Eastwood the director included here. Though later entries like Invictus (2009), Hereafter (2010), and J. Edgar (2011) round out the collection, none of them is as cohesive and unique as the excellent run of films Eastwood brought to a close with Gran Torino. The film is another story that unfolds in the long shadow of war, as Eastwood’s character Walt Kowalski is a Korean War veteran who has never forgiven himself for his participation in certain acts of violence during wartime.

At least at the beginning of the film, Kowalski joins Will Munny as another “unforgiven” character in the Eastwood repertoire. The film also continues in the tradition of Letters from Iwo Jima by representing a culture that might be unfamiliar for the American audience. In this case, the community being represented is the Hmong people. The film is set in Detroit, where Kowalski lives in a neighborhood populated by several Hmong Americans.

The most obvious source of conflict (and source of darkly comic effect) in Gran Torino is that between grizzled racist Kowalski and his friendly neighbors. When the film opens, Kowalski’s wife has died and his uncaring children and grandchildren provide no comfort. Apart from a dog companion, he is truly alone. Eventually, he comes to the aid of Sue Lor (Ahney Her) and her brother Thao Vang Lor (Bee Vang), two young neighbors that are being terrorized by their cousins.

Kowalski never softens, but he does begin to understand that his neighbors are more of a family to him than his own blood relatives. His eventual sacrifice on their behalf isn’t the atonement his late wife might have hoped for when she longed for him to go to confession. Nor is it a rational way to deal with the ghosts that haunt him from the war. Advanced in age and in poor health, Kowalski commits to the sort of decisive heroism that endears viewers to Callahan, Wales, Preacher and other “protectors” of the Eastwood canon. He does it on his own terms.

The final film of the collection is Trouble with the Curve (2012), the directorial debut of Robert Lorenz, Eastwood’s longtime producer/assistant director. Eastwood stars as Gus, a baseball scout who is going blind. Amy Adams plays his daughter Mickey (as in “Mantle”), a lawyer for whom work is everything in life. The best idea of Randy Brown’s screenplay is to bring father and estranged daughter to a crossroads when they are both on the verge of life-changing decisions. Gus and Mickey are two stubborn individuals who don’t realize how much they need one another until Mickey intervenes to help her father with his work. Though their day to day activity is to scout players for the Atlanta Braves, it is their own relationship that becomes the focus of the plot. That many of the details of the scout/draft process seem under-researched isn’t a fatal flaw, as the movie is more of a family comedy/drama than it is a serious sports film.

The inclusion of Trouble with the Curve in this set is an example of context making a film seem better than it probably is on individual merits. After so much death, violence, and regret, it is a welcome diversion to end the collection of films. Only a few of these films feature stable family units, so a plot about the successful reunion of father and daughter is a pleasant exception to the overwhelmingly negative filial/familial bonds that appear throughout the collection.

Most of the Blu-ray discs in Clint Eastwood: 20 Film Collection offer featurettes, commentaries, and/or other bonus content that sheds some light on the films’ creation. Unfortunately, A Perfect World, which is one of the most outstanding movies, lacks supplemental material. Had any been included, it might make the case for an ignored post-Unforgiven classic. But in general there is no shortage of additional content to enhance the experience of watching the films. Two feature-length documentaries directed by Eastwood expert Richard Schickel appear here, as well. The Eastwood Factor (2010) reviews Eastwood’s entire career through an in-depth interview with the actor/director. And Eastwood Directs: The Untold Story (2013), which premiered on TCM in May, interviews actors, writers, directors and other film industry notables to further demystify the man. 

As skilled a filmmaker as Eastwood has proven to be, there are two significant blind spots that become apparent when viewing his films back to back. Both of these areas involve the decades-long fixation with violence that informs all of the films in this collection. The first is the frequency with which the threat and/or act of rape/sexual assault occurs in Eastwood’s body of work.  Half of the films in the collection use rape/sexual assault as a plot device. Sondra Locke alone experiences it three or four times in her various roles here. Even the innocuous Trouble with the Curve introduces a late-breaking back story of molestation that is completely at odds with the tone of the movie as a whole.

What to make of this seeming obsession? As a director, producer, and actor in several of the films of which the above is true, Eastwood didn’t fall into these plotlines by accident. For some reason, rape (usually of a woman, but sometimes a young boy) is the trigger for revenge. Some might argue that the frequency with which rape comes up in Eastwood’s work is an honest acknowledgement of its pervasiveness in the world around us. But I would counter that argument by saying that putting it on screen so often trivializes the issue and has the potential to desensitize viewers to the violence therein.

The second blind spot is a contradictory attitude toward violence and the possibility of redemption. While Eastwood’s greatest movies serve as critiques of unrestrained violence and the torment it creates, the characters in these films are rarely willing or able to put the cycle of violence to an end. And there are occasionally characters who try to persuade others not to kill, but their influence is limited. For example, in Million Dollar Baby there is a priest played by Brían F. O’Byrne. When Dunn approaches him for consultation about the life-or-death decision Fitzgerald has asked him to participate in, the priest tells him, “You step aside. You leave her with God.” But Dunn refuses to step aside, as does Walt Kowalski when another priest offers similar advice in Gran Torino. Jimmy Markum doesn’t step aside in Mystic River. Unforgiven‘s Will Munny, certain of his own damnation but initially committed to leaving a violent past behind, reverses course to kill again. The list goes on.

Why must so many of these characters, in films about the futility of violence, nonetheless appoint themselves as the sole arbiters of life and death? Eastwood’s skill for telling humanistic stories does not include any wisdom about true deliverance. His characters either reach a partial atonement of their own making or resign themselves to hopelessness. The tagline for Million Dollar Baby is indicative of Eastwood’s philosophy: “Beyond his silence, there is a past. Beyond her dreams, there is a feeling. Beyond hope, there is a memory.” More often than not, the souls that populate Clint Eastwood’s films are not only haunted by pasts, feelings, and memories but also lacking hope to escape the discontentment of their lives. They do not see forgiveness as an option. In this, they resemble the “pale deaths” in Stephen R. Donaldson’s Lord Foul’s Bane (1977) from “The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever”: “These are the pale deaths which men miscall their lives: for all the scent of green things growing, each breath is but an exhalation of the grave.”

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