In this thing big time
FBI profiler Terry McCaleb (Clint Eastwood) is the best at what he does. When you first see him, he’s making his way through a crime scene in a large house. He doesn’t say much, and he’s arrived after his L.A. detective counterparts, Arrango (Paul Rodriguez) and Winston (Dylan Walsh), yet the camera treats him with reverence, following him, maintaining a low angle and sober distance, as he moves from room to room. At last he reaches the room where the killer has left his challenge to McCaleb, again—a string of numbers (he’s called “the code killer”) and an invitation to “Catch me.” The camera pauses here on his famously weathered face, and Eastwood does what he does best: he reacts silently, grimly, intensely, and almost imperceptibly. That face says everything you need to know.
Over the years, Clint Eastwood has come to know himself. He knows his limits, his strengths, and his particular appeals as a movie star, actor, and filmmaker. He knows what power he wields. Once king of the vigilante/vengeance business—whether taking after gangs of varmints in the spaghetti Westerns (The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly , etc.), Hang ‘Em High (1967), and The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976); any number of punks in the Dirty Harry series; even Jessica Walter in Play Misty for Me (1971)—Eastwood has more recently developed an astutely self-reflective attitude. This attitude is surely visible in much of his work, from Pale Rider (1985) and White Hunter, Black Heart (1989) to the brilliant Tightrope (1984) and the troubling Unforgiven (1992). And it has become increasingly acute and pained in films like A Perfect World (1993), Absolute Power (1996), the ambitious but clunky True Crime (1998), and the shrewdly self-jibing Space Cowboys (2000). Vengeance rarely produces a happy ending, violence is an inadequate measure of heroism, physical prowess is largely mythic, and morality is relative.
While most all his films address human (or maybe better, white male) frailty and error, the recent films, those showcasing Eastwood’s aging body, have made a point of challenging the cultural and aesthetic traditions that celebrate Caucasian machismo. In his new movie, Blood Work, Eastwood is posing all kinds of good questions, some addressed more coherently than others. And, as he does most often these days, he is using his own aging self as the most volatile and vital point of departure.
As a sign of that aging, his weathered face, the one that says so much without a word of dialogue, is only the beginning. Within minutes of Blood Work‘s opening, McCaleb is literally on the run, chasing a suspect from the crime scene. Huffing and puffing through alleys and over fences (he crashes into things more than once), McCaleb collapses, his vision strained and his breathing labored.
Cut to two years later, and McCaleb has just received a new “ticker,” some two months before. His no-nonsense doctor, Bonnie Fox (Anjelica Huston), monitors his temperature and blood, looking for signs of rejection. But so far, he’s doing fine, living out his retiree’s life on his not-so-big boat, jawing with his beer-drinking marina neighbor Buddy (Jeff Daniels), and generally avoiding stress. And then, of course, comes trouble. This in the form of Graciella Rivers (Wanda De Jesús), whose sister, shot in the head during a convenience store robbery, is his heart donor (they share a rare blood type). The cops aren’t solving the sister’s murder, and Graciella wants answers, she says, for the sister’s young son (read: convenient nuclear familial unit for McCaleb). Having read that McCaleb was once “the best” in such matters, Graciella arrives at his boat and lays on the guilt trip: he lives because her sister died. Or, as he puts it, “I’m in this thing big time.”
Good thing. For on its non-Eastwood merits, this thing is less than compelling, a standard policier with some obvious clues slammed home by way of repeated flashback images, literary overkill (too many references to “blood” and “heart”), and characters you can’t help but recognize as “important” and “not.” And the convenience of falling in love with the heart donor’s sister—shades of David Duchovny, Minnie Driver, and their big old dog. Based on the first of Michael Connelly’s Terry McCaleb novels (though here the character is younger than Eastwood), the film is produced and directed by Eastwood, who brings with him longtime Malpaso cohorts like production designer Henry Bumstead, editor Joel Cox, composer Lennie Niehaus, and DP Tom Stern, formerly lighting guy on some ten Eastwood films). With all this talent contributing, Blood Work has an efficient sensibility and elegant look, such that the predictable scenes (the shootout on a derelict ship at night, for example) are executed with sophistication and wit.
This talent doesn’t excuse or save bad plot ideas, like the love scene: Graciella and McCaleb face each other and themselves in the perfectly lit mirror, she turns to kiss the surgery scar, then descends into romantic shadow (block that metaphor!). At the same time, the film is tight enough that such scenes don’t take up too much time, allowing the great supporting characters to offer smart commentary on the Eastwood persona. Certainly, taking on Flap as The Sidekick seriously reframes the man’s tough-guy rep. Buddy complains and frets and throws off all the usual “buddy-cop” rhythms, in his own way highlighting just how peculiar it is to share the screen with Eastwood.
Even better are the girls. McCaleb is surrounded: along with Dr. Fox and Graciella to back him up, he has another canny supporter in an L.A. detective he helped to solve a serial killer case some years back, Jaye Winston (Tina Lifford). They clearly respect one another, and seem to have some kind of relationship past, perhaps most evident as she watches him take out after a lurking car on a street corner with her shotgun. At first, she insists—loudly—that he get control of himself, but once she sees that the car comes after him, she hauls out her weapon and joins in the fray. She’s Pam Grier in a sensible suit—sexy, smart, self-assured, and above all, self-knowing.
Which has everything to do with how Eastwood knows himself, at least on screen. Though he’s long declared himself a “feminist,” he hasn’t always looked like one, in his private/public life or in his art. And while he has long espoused socially “liberal” politics, his films can be less than insightful concerning race or class. For examples, both Unforgiven and True Crime use black characters (dead or about to be dead) to motivate the Eastwood protagonist’s heroism. Such awkwardness becomes part of the point in Blood Work, as both McCaleb’s new heart and lover are Mexican, as is his most vocal antagonist, the extra-competitive Arrango.
Before you can say Heart Condition, Blood Work is grappling with definitions of race in terms of body parts and communities, the ways that it shapes experience and character. These definitions don’t affect McCaleb’s thinking (from jump, apparently, he’s a decent, unprejudiced, white federal agent), but they can’t help but be integral to the film’s thematic fabric. The world he inhabits is treacherous, and he says his job makes him feel “connected,” all strands coming together—criminal, evidence, his own intuition and thinking process. But as his own body is so radically altered (he touches his scar repeatedly, perhaps feeling his mortality as well as his connectedness), he voices gratitude for his “Mexican” heart, McCaleb is granted another chance, another way to feel connected. It may not be not enlightenment, exactly, but it may be a start.