When Clint Eastwood began his 50 year directorial career at age 41, he was already an icon. He was Rowdy Yates from Rawhide, then he was The Man With No Name, and in 1971 (the same year he directed his first feature), he became Dirty Harry Callahan. He set straight to work on subverting his own iconography (High Plains Drifter, anyone?). His films reveal an obsession with dismantling his own status in the American imagination as the Man’s Man– the cop who won’t play by the rules, the tough guy badass hero who saves the day and spits on the ground, the ultimate cowboy. His Unforgiven is the ne plus ultra of the deromanticized Western. His war movies interrogate American mythologies of heroism and his crime movies find the cops lost in the same moral fog as the criminals.
If you know me at all, you know that I’m a fan of Clint’s late work. I’m a fan of Late Style quite generally: I’m fascinated by the final stages of a great artistic career, where an acknowledged master has nothing left to prove and no shits left to give and just follows their inspiration where it takes them. This year in Late Style we’ve got quite a haul already: Paul Schrader’s The Card Counter and Clint’s Cry Macho. I do like the former quite a bit, but the latter is truly great.
It’s the third film that Eastwood has collaborated on with Nick Schenk. I see these three films as a loose trilogy where Clint Eastwood the man lays Clint Eastwood the icon to rest. These are complex films with multiple thematic layers, and I couldn’t possibly begin to do justice to them here, but I do want to try to develop this thought a little further and briefly explain how I see the three fitting together.
Smug philistines are fond of a particularly simplistic Gran Torino critique: racial slurs play for laughs and then an Archie Bunker-esque character gets redeemed, with the result that Fox News audiences get to laugh at racist jokes then feel unwarranted gratification at their own anti-racism due to the redemptive ending. Did it work like this for some audiences? Yes, surely. But you can’t blame Clint for lobotomized Fox News fans liking his movie for the wrong reasons. The same thing happened with American Sniper and the same thing happens every Fourth of July when Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” gets played as though it were a patriotic anthem.
Clint’s character in Gran Torino (Walt) is ostensibly a retired auto worker, but really he is Dirty Harry. Watch the two movies together and you’ll see that it couldn’t be clearer. One of the main things the film is about is the way that swaggering tough guy machismo of the Dirty Harry variety is the surface manifestation of repressed pain and self-loathing. Walt has PTSD from the Korean War, and is particularly haunted by his own acts of violence towards Korean men. He sublimates his pain surrounding these memories into ongoing racial bitterness. When the movie begins, he’s the only white guy left in a Detroit neighborhood that has slowly transformed into a Hmong community and he’s not happy about it. He doesn’t even understand who the Hmong are, but he knows he hates them.
Movies where a cantankerous white person is won over to racial understanding are admittedly not the most sophisticated genre, but please don’t confuse this with the efforts of lesser filmmakers. Clint has a strong point of view here—it may not be everyone’s cup of tea but it’s not some cheap and easy feel-good nonsense. What the film focuses on is the way that Walt and his Hmong neighbors ultimately bond over their shared class identification. Before he’s white and before he’s American, Walt is a working class Detroit guy. He has more in common with the Hmong immigrant community than he does with his own spoiled suburban family. The film’s insistent doubling down on its use of racial slurs is provocative, but it’s contextualized by the idea (plain as day for anyone open to seeing the movie as sophisticated and self-critical) that certain ways of using racial slurs express mutual affection and shared class identification. At a Detroit auto garage where Italian, black, and Hmong mechanics work side-by-side and become close friends, the use of slurs means something very different than it does in other contexts. Read Luvell Anderson’s excellent work on slurs for a robust philosophical analysis of their context-dependence and the way they can express intimacy.
Clint’s character in the film begins as a bitter Dirty Harry-style racist and ends with a grand penitential gesture. Is he redeemed? In some sense, yes. But it’s important to highlight that the primary reward of his redemption is release from the pain of racial bitterness. That’s not a cheap and easy redemption of the sort that should bother us.
While Gran Torino is more about Clint the icon, The Mule is more about Clint the man. He casts his own daughter in the film as the daughter who hates him and explores his profound regret around the way he lost his family while he was out passing around meaningless trophies. I’ve written about The Mule quite a bit already so I’ll refrain from rehearsing my line here but I do think it’s important to see that just as he subverts the image of Dirty Harry in Gran Torino, he subverts his own celebrity in The Mule.
Cry Macho is the elegy. Some hack commentators complain about casting a 91 year old in the film’s lead role when the character in the novel is more like 40. This is such a bad take. The film is not simply an adaptation of the novel; it’s also about Clint’s iconography. Alongside John Wayne, he is the ultimate cowboy. But unlike John Wayne, he’s spent more than half his life purposefully subverting his own image. The film is blunt about the way archetypes are deployed: the boy who Mike is on a mission to rescue (Rafa) names his rooster Macho and very explicitly seeks to become a macho tough guy who can protect himself from the sort of abuse his mother has wantonly subjected him to. He agrees to go with Mike because Mike is a real cowboy. He embodies Rafa’s idea of what it is to be a man, just like Clint Eastwood does in the popular imagination. But Mike is old enough to have learned that his own macho image was hollow. For the first time ever (I believe), we see Clint shed a tear onscreen. But perhaps more importantly, we also see him express joy and bemused contentment in his old age. He smiles so much in the movie. It’s so warm (though he still finds a few minutes to spend cursing under his breath at the cops). This is important in part because Clint the icon does not smile. He’ll stare you down, but he won’t smile. Rafa hoped Mike would teach him how to be a tough guy who can handle anything, but Mike instead teaches him that this is a bullshit ideal. He teaches him that it’s okay to be emotional, both when this means crying openly and when it means earnestly expressing joy. I don’t want to spoil anything, but the film’s resolution conveys Clint’s own sense of peace and acceptance of the realities of aging. If Gran Torino reveals the pain behind Dirty Harry’s tough guy facade, Cry Macho reveals the joy of letting it all go. It’s a wonderful movie, and one that I’m grateful to have in my life.