Clint Eastwood: the “Morally Conflicted Poet of Masculine Despair”

Since he made his presence known on the television series Rawhide in the late 1960s, up through his last released directorial effort and last (for good?) starring role in 2008’s Gran Tornio, Clint Eastwood has firmly established himself as a major figure in American (and beyond) cinema and as a prominent figure of masculinity. Taking the macho reigns from figures like John Wayne of years previous, Eastwood, through his acting and, beginning in 1971, directing, embodies an idealized, often romanticized, and frequently complex sense of masculine identity and a man’s role in society. His stoic and restrained veneer have caused some to look at his films as being simplistic and literal. But, upon closer inspection, one sees that within and beneath his most famous pictures, as actor and/or director, lays a more intricate meaning, a more elaborate choice of character, story, and style. “His better films as a director have a richness to then,” writes Andrew Tudor, “not just stylistically … but also a moral complexity which belies the one-dimensionality of the Eastwood image” (Sarris, 149). In his crime films, which encompass everything from tales of political corruption (Absolute Power) to western classics (The Outlaw Josey Wales) to the prison break picture (Escape from Alcatraz), Eastwood finds repeated ways in which to explore aspects of the filmic hero and the male disposition.

Akiva Gottlieb, in his article “Last Man Standing: On Clint Eastwood,” writes that the filmmaker is “a full-time curator of the pesky, ever resurfacing ‘Clint Eastwood, cowboy hero’ mythology ... In his desire to be both the uncomplicated hero and the morally conflicted poet of masculine despair, Eastwood has sacrificed some of his work's potential power.” Gottlieb here, first of all, seems to be suggesting that the “‘Clint Eastwood, cowboy hero’ mythology” implies a straightforwardness and simplicity and that by having a “body of work to be reckoned with” (which he does, as actor and director) it gives him the rather enigmatic title of “poet of masculine despair.” While certainly both are rather ambiguous oversimplifications, if anything, Eastwood’s work in any credit falls more to the latter category. The depth of his work, his aesthetic (“poetic”) sensibilities, all point towards a style and cannon of films that are anything but “uncomplicated.”

In Dirty Harry (1971), directed by Don Siegel, Eastwood took on one of his most iconic roles, that of Harry Callahan. Upon first glance, it’s easy to see how some, like Gottlieb, could brush off the role as an “uncomplicated hero.” Indeed, Harry doesn’t give us much to work with, on the surface. But as the film progresses, and with an open mind, one can quite reasonably see that there is more to Harry than meets the eye. He is not just an idealized, overly aggressive and violent masculine figure, he a walking commentary on masculinity. Critic and historian David Thomson has noted that even by the point of Play Misty For Me (also 1971), his first major film as director, “Eastwood had wit and humor enough to undermine the very male supremacy that had made him famous. It is in the area of self-education that Eastwood is most liberal” (270).

Harry is aware, first and foremost, that he has a job to do, and, albeit with some complaining, he does it. That is not as simple as it seems though. There is a certain masculine ideal of just doing one’s job, somebody’s gotta do it. But Eastwood as Harry Callahan is vocally more displeased with his work than most. He “hates everyone,” according to a fellow officer, and he seems to have pure distain for the city and its inhabitants, which and whom is continually risking his life for. So then, what drives this man? He’s not just an “uncomplicated hero;” instead he epitomizes the predominantly yet stereotypically male notion of having a job to do and just doing it, and, what’s more, he continues on, continues to do it well, and continues even knowing his job and life are at stake. It takes someone rather complex to face these consequences and to move forward, despite his apparent dislike for the system and society.

In his bitter and cynical dialogue, his restrained tone, and his rigid poise, Eastwood presents issues of masculine despair also in his life dissatisfaction, his confusion of his self and his societal role, and his clear disregard for procedure and constraints, for injustices and hypocrisy; these all indicate a rather deep sense of anguish. Additionally, Harry’s gruff demeanor doesn’t come out of nowhere. There is a reason for why he is why he is. There are hints that it may have something to do with the death of his wife. Most probably he wasn’t like this while married; his wife would surely have had a hard time, no doubt, putting up with him. How would she have, in all likelihood, found him personally attractive at that? So, what did it? What changed Harry or made Harry “dirty?” How did he reach this level of despair which he has, where he is an unflinching, independent, private individual? The fact that there are all these questions to be asked (indeed there are more) just goes to illustrate that Harry, that is, Eastwood, is more than just an “uncomplicated hero.”

Years later, in what I consider to be his best film, Unforgiven (1992), as director and star Eastwood offers up a treatise on not only masculine myths and suppositions but also on the nature—its causes and consequences—of crime and violence. Apparently falling prey to the, according to Gottlieb “‘Clint Eastwood, cowboy hero’ mythology,” Eastwood in this western (one of the best of recent years), more brazenly attacks this mythology than encourages it.

His William Munny has led a wickedly brutal life of violence, killing women and children, as is frequently noted. He was a man’s man, to be reckoned with. There was, following Gottlieb’s line of thinking, not much to his behavior or his personality. However, upon marrying, having children, and settling down (his wife later dies), Munny has reformed himself and has given up these ways. In doing so, crucially, he becomes more complex in his “masculine despair.” The traces of this sordid past remain with him; the images of the dead at his hand haunt him. When, though an act of revenge brought on by an act of violence for pure monetary gain, Munny must resurrect his old self, we see just how deep this man goes.

Throughout the picture, Munny remain morally conflicted when it comes to violence. He know the damage it can do, to the killer and the victim, he knows the realities of crime (as opposed to the writer in the picture who knows only the myths). “The protagonists in his better films, like Josey Wales in The Outlaw Josey Wales, Highway in Heartbreak Ridge, Munny in Unforgiven, even Charlie Parker in the flawed Bird, are not simple men in either their virtues or their failings,” comments Andrew Tudor (Sarris, 149). Despite the questions and insinuations about his checkered past, Munny downplays his deeds. He doesn’t want to encourage the kid who rides with him. Munny embodies the hypocrisy and contradictions that violence entails.

With all of this in mind, Eastwood here, in a most traditional of American film genres, crafts a truly poetic, that is sensitive and lyrical, discourse on violence and the male’s role in a society, and a type of film, which strongly fosters and supports crime and aggression. Eastwood as director, while showing considerable interior contemplation towards these issues, does not make the film elaborately showy in its exterior form. What Gottlieb might consider uncomplicated, Eastwood’s treatment of the film stylistically is actually more meditative. He doesn’t glamorize nor oversimplify the western myths of masculinity and violence; instead he presents the story in a balance of melancholy and despair (achieved most greatly through lighting and staging) and harshness (again the lighting, but also the graphic brutality). This is a thinking man’s crime film, a conscious western that is analytical of its myths and itself. How does one, especially a man of this time, who is burdened with duties of masculinity, function in a world where such duties are continually questioned and provoked? The answer for some: in despair.

The thread of despair runs through another major crime film from Eastwood, 2003’s Mystic River. In Unforgiven, Munny says that he is “just a fella, no different than anyone else.” This inclination towards the common man, towards a world of manly modesty, comes back in Mystic River. Here, in a blue collar Boston neighborhood, the surface of monotony and peacefulness is severely cracked as crime threatens to destroy built up worlds of masculine solidarity, exposing, like Unforgiven and Dirty Harry, a troubling past which is at the heart of a hidden despair.

Following an opening sequence which combats issues of masculine despair in any number of disturbing ways, we are brought to years later when the three boys shown in this prologue are grown up. They are representative of various forms of masculine roles: Jimmy Markum (Sean Penn) is a store owner—thus a provider to his family and his community—but, like Munny, has a dark past; there is Dave Boyle (Tim Robbins), a meek man who, as we saw in the film’s opening, has had his masculinity despairingly thwarted by being molested as a child; and there is Sean Devine (Kevin Bacon), a cop (a very masculine and familiar Eastwood trope), who is struggling not only with solving a murder, but also attempting to patch back together his hapless marriage. In these three characters, aided by fine actors and restrained, raw direction, Eastwood, as director, presents exemplary despair-laden masculine individuals.

As the film progresses, following the murder of Jimmy’s daughter, moral ambiguity ascends to the top of these characters and the film. Solutions for these men aren’t simple. The bonds they’ve created as children and adults are tried and tested. For Jimmy, his family conflicts with friendship; for Dave, his disturbed mentality interrupts his logical thinking; and Sean must overcome his personal issues to focus on his job (again we see that having a job to do is a theme), despite the friendly ties to those involved. Mystic River, then, continues with that very Clint Eastwood examination of men, complex men, existing in a morally challenging world, one filled with external and internal despair.

“Simplicity need not lack subtly, and Eastwood’s finest work is compassionate, rich in insights, and quietly adventurous,” writes Geoff Andrew (67). Gottlieb himself points to the dual nature (thus complexity) of Eastwood’s work, writing that he is “A lightning rod for cheap moralizing, a starkly ambivalent embodiment of American masculinity, a callous vigilante and a sentimental old fogy.” Yet, he is “A gentle stylist informed by classic Hollywood tropes, obsessed with the interplay between darkness and light, as well as a plain-spoken existentialist who remains fearless in the face of Big Questions, Eastwood makes films that still draw teenagers to drive-ins and elicit weeping at the Museum of Modern Art.”

So surely then, there is much more to Eastwood’s films than just an uncomplicated overview. Accolades, appreciation, and admiration—critically, historically, commercially—must account for something, something far deeper than a simplistic take. As David Thomson has noted, “by 1994, Eastwood was one the very few Americans admired and respected at home and abroad, with qualification or irony” (270). In his films as actor and director, Eastwood, for decades now, with no sign of stopping, has provided the cinema with a wealth of films critically, even poetically, examining, in a way most films do not, the place and role of masculinity, not just in society, but also in typically male-dominated film genres.

Works Cited
Andrew, Geoff. The Director’s Vision: A Concise Guide to the Art of 250 Great Filmmakers. Chicago: A Cappella, 1999.
Gottlieb, Akiva. “Last Man Standing: On Clint Eastwood.” The Nation June 1, 2009 edition. Written May 13, 2009.
Sarris, Andrew. Ed. The St. James Film Directors Encyclopedia. Detroit: Visible Ink, 1998.
Thomson, David. The New Biographical Dictionary of Film. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004.

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