You Should Be Watching: August 23-29

Welcome to You Should Be Watching, my weekly opportunity to introduce you to a variety of great films, gems of the past and present, available for you to stream from Netflix, Amazon Prime, FilmStruck, and anywhere else streams are found.


STREAMING PICKS OF THE WEEK


The Exorcist

 — August 30 is last day to watch

Year: 1973

Director: William Friedkin

Genre: Horror, Drama, Thriller

Cast: Linda Blair, Max von Sydow, Ellen Burstyn, Jason Miller, Lee J. Cobb, Kitty Winn, William O’Malley, Jack MacGowran, Barton Heyman, Peter Masterson, Rudolf Schündler, Robert Symonds, Titos Vandis, Donna Mitchell, Robert Gerringer, Mercedes McCambridge, Eileen Dietz

Even if you’ve never seen The Exorcist, you’re probably familiar with its premise of a young girl named Regan finding her body the battleground between a powerful demon and the priests trying to exorcise it (Max von Sydow and Jason Miller). But what makes it so effective and worth seeing, even beyond William Friedkin’s masterful direction, is the grave authenticity William Blatty’s script provides to its subject matter, without so much as a wink at the camera, and the characters caught up in it.

Ellen Burstyn is a mother on a desperate search for answers to her daughter’s ever-worsening condition. Linda Blair is her daughter Regan, who having played with a Ouija board now finds herself host to the worst kind of guest. Regan’s increasingly disturbing state of body and mind is all the more shocking given her cuteness and sweet disposition at the start.

The film invites deep thought and discussion of the spiritual world, from the nature of faith to God’s providence and sovereignty to questions about the impact of physical and mental health versus that of angels and demons and where the two diverge. As badly as the doctors want Regan’s problem to be something they can physically see in the brain or have treated as a mental health issue, the evidence grows increasingly undeniable that the cause is supernatural.


Escape from Alcatraz

        — August 30 is last day to watch

Year: 1979

Director: Don Siegel

Genre: Biography, Crime, Drama

Cast: Clint Eastwood, Patrick McGoohan, Roberts Blossom, Jack Thibeau, Fred Ward, Paul Benjamin, Larry Hankin, Bruce M. Fischer, Frank Ronzio, Fred Stuthman, David Cryer Hank Brandt, Ray K. Goman, Blair Burrows

Escape from Alcatraz details the most famous prison break in American history. While both the film and the real life escape involved several inmates, the vast majority of the film’s focus is on Frank Morris, played by Clint Eastwood. Most of the character and emotional beats are seen through his eyes. It’s a fascinating exploration into the problem solving process and the risks needing to be taken for people to escape an inescapable prison.

But the film doesn’t work unless the audience cares to some extent about Frank and his accomplices. To this end, J. Campbell Bruce’s script provides very few details about the crimes that sent these convicts to the island prison. Instead, we see men trapped in cages and dehumanized by a hard warden (Patrick McGoohan), who prevents them at a whim from having niceties that would make their incarceration at least palatable. Once the audience feels sympathizes with the prisoners for being treated unfairly in a hopeless situation, it’s easy to be sucked into the means of their escape and want them to succeed. Clint himself is a big part of that as well with his no-nonsense motivated yet compassionate manner.


My Left Foot: The Story of Christy Brown

  — August 31 is last day to watch

Year: 1989

Director: Jim Sheridan

Genre: Biography, Drama

Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis, Brenda Fricker, Alison Whelan, Declan Croghan, Eanna MacLiam, Marie Conmee, Kirsten Sheridan, Cyril Cusack, Phelim Drew, Ruth McCabe, Fiona Shaw, Ray McAnally, Pat Laffan, Derry Power

Christy Brown was an Irishman born into extreme poverty and having a severe case of cerebral palsy that even as an adult left him unable to control any part of his body but his left foot. Daniel Day-Lewis’ portrayal of the adult Christy is one more example for why the now retired actor is one of the most acclaimed in film history. His chameleon-like level and skill of intense physical acting is nothing short of astonishing. It’s difficult to believe the man on the screen doesn’t have cerebral palsy himself. Christy goes through a wide range of capabilities and emotional states, and Lewis nails them all. Even the child who played young Christy was remarkable in his short screen time.

It’s heartwarming to see that despite all of his trouble interacting with the world around him, Christy always had friends, siblings, and especially his mother support him, especially since his father is so dismissive of him most of his life. However, this film is not about them and so they do not receive a lot of development in the script. The focus throughout is on the struggle and triumph of being Christy Brown.


COMING AND GOING


LAST CHANCE (last date to watch)

NETFLIX

August 24
The Road (2009)

August 25
Gangs of New York (2002)
Night Will Fall (2014)

August 26
White God (2014)

August 27
Ernest & Celestine (2012)
Wrinkles (2011)

August 29
Destiny (1921)

August 31
Batman Begins (2005)
Casino (1995)
The Dark Knight (2008)
Dead Poets Society (1989)
The Descent (2005)
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
Ghostbusters (1984)
Hachi: A Dog’s Tale (2009)
It Might Get Loud (2008)
Man on Wire (2008)
Wet Hot American Summer (2001)

September 4
To The Wonder (2012)

AMAZON PRIME

August 23
10 Cloverfield Lane (2016)

August 24
Captain Fantastic (2016)

August 29
Dirty Dancing (1987)

August 30
The ’Burbs (1989)
Boy (2010)
Breathing (2011)
A Bullet for the General (1966)
Companeros (1970)
Computer Chess (2013)
David and Lisa (1962)
Deep Red (1975)
Django (1966)
Escape from Alcatraz (1979)
Event Horizon (1997)
Keoma (1976)
The Last Waltz (1978)
Opera (1987)
The Return of Ringo (1965)
The Running Man (1987)
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)

August 31
Anthropoid (2016)
The Big Racket (1976)
Blazing Saddles (1974)
Capote (2005)
Dead Man Walking (1995)
Death at a Funeral (2007)
A Fistful Of Dynamite (1971)
The Flowers of War (2011)
The Hurt Locker (2008)
Inferno (1980)
The Natural (1984)
Raging Bull (1980)
Red River (1948)
Stories We Tell (2012)
Training Day (2001)
Trees Lounge (1996)

FILMSTRUCK

August 24
Act of Violence (1949)
Boy (2010)
Casablanca (1942)
The Freshman (1925)
From Here to Eternity (1953)
Get Carter (1971)
The Little Foxes (1941)
A Man for All Seasons (1966)
Mildred Pierce (1945)
Nine Queens (2000)
Now, Voyager (1942)
The Producers (1967)
Stella Dallas (1937)
Swing Time (1936)
Top Hat (1935)
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)

August 31
Badlands (1973)
Bonnie and Clyde (1967)
Diary of a Lost Girl (1929)
The Exorcist (1973)
Gun Crazy (1950)
Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001)
Kameradschaft (1931)
Reservoir Dogs (1992)
The Searchers (1956)
They Live by Night (1948)
Tootsie (1982)
Westfront 1918 (1930)
You Only Live Once (1937)

HULU

August 31
Across the Universe (2007)
A Beautiful Mind (2001)
The ’Burbs (1989)
Clue (1985)
Dead Man Walking (1995)
Escape from Alcatraz (1979)
Event Horizon (1997)
Hellboy (2004)
My Left Foot: The Story of Christy Brown (1989)
Primal Fear (1996)
Rain Man (1988)
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)
Trainspotting (1996)


JUST ARRIVED

NETFLIX

Peter Rabbit (2018)
The Motive – NETFLIX FILM (2017)
To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before – NETFLIX FILM (2018)

AMAZON PRIME

Unsane (2018)

FILMSTRUCK

My Brilliant Career (1979)
On Golden Pond (1981)
The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)

HULU

A Ciambra (2017)
Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011)
Minding the Gap — HULU DOCUMENTARY (2018)
Role Models (2008)


COMING THIS WEEK

NETFLIX

August 24
The After Party — NETFLIX FILM (2018)

AMAZON PRIME

August 26
mother! (2017)

HULU

August 26
Gangs of New York (2002)
mother! (2017)


Jacob Neff is a film enthusiast living east of Sacramento. In addition to his contributions as an admin of the Feelin’ Film Facebook group and website, he is an active participant in the Letterboxd community, where his film reviews can be found. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter to keep up with his latest thoughts and shared content.

The Evolution of Eastwood: ANY WHICH WAY YOU CAN

ANY WHICH WAY YOU CAN (1980)

“Why me, Lord? You made other men out of clay. Mine, you made out of s$%#.” – Cholla, Black Widow Leader

At this point in his career, only two of Clint Eastwood’s films had received direct sequels: A Fistful of Dollars and Dirty Harry. Both had come to help define his persona and cinematic footprint. But given the rabid financial success of Every Which Way But Loose, a sequel was not only understandable – it was inevitable.

Any Which Way You Can follows a very similar formula to its earlier predecessor. Philo Beddoe (Eastwood) is still bare-knuckle brawling alongside his corner bookie, Orville (Geoffrey Lewis, reprising his role) and they’re both still side-stepping the bumbling and cantankerous Black Widow Gang. Along for the ride too is the faithful orangutan, Clyde and Orville’s ornery Ma (Ruth Gordon). Not to be left out, the pair also cross paths once again with Lynn Halsey-Taylor (Sondra Locke), who had left Philo broken-hearted and wounded-ego’d in the last film.

What’s different this time around is that Philo is genuinely wanting out of his brawling habits. He’s starting to become addicted to the pain and does not want to spend the rest of his days in a brawl with himself. He’s coaxed out of a self-imposed retirement by the representatives of the undefeated Jack Wilson (played by William Smith) who believe the underground fighting arena would pay huge sums to see the pair do battle. When Philo refuses, they kidnap Halsey-Taylor as leverage, which sparks a madcap series of chases in the film’s latter half as Orville and Philo pursue a rescue, the Black Widow Gang pursue revenge, and the bare-knuckle brawling bookies pursue a major payday.

Directed by long-time Eastwood stunt double, Buddy Van Horn (whose most prominent on-screen appearance had been in High Plains Drifter), Any Which Way You Can is, pound for pound, a funnier, faster, and generally more entertaining film than Every Which Way But Loose. Its elements are more absurd and less credible, but the laughs are sharper and the final fist-fight has more interesting stakes (not to mention a genuinely better matched opponent in Wilson). In purely objective terms, it’s a lesser film for all of its outrageousness; but it’s also a difficult film not to enjoy.

There isn’t much to credit in terms of performance that wasn’t there in the first film except that the leader of the Black Widow Gang (a buffoon named Cholla played by John Quade) is given a surprising glut of comedic opportunities. Quade was in the first film playing the same character, but that earlier film tried not to push the absurdity boundaries very much whereas this film embraces the looney tunes nature of the gang of knuckleheads. Cholla’s lines (as well as the overall narrative arc of the gang) are better in this film and the film is better for their continued presence.

Eastwood, Lewis, Gordon, and Locke are each as watchable and engaging as they were the first time around (if not more so). One element of this entry that I enjoyed tremendously was that the final fight sequence between Philo and Wilson is evenly matched and genuinely tense. Eastwood has had a multitude of fist-fights in nearly all of his films, and in almost every one of them he single-handedly mops the floor with his opponents. However, in the fight in this film, he’s not only evenly matched, there is a genuine question through out the whole fight as to whether or not he will win. I won’t spoil the outcome for you here, but there are some anxious surprises in the midst of it that I frankly found refreshing.

There is an element to the film which is worth noting, although it is sad and disturbing. There is an on-screen fight between a ferret (called a mongoose in the film) and a rattlesnake. The American Human Society gave a pass to the fight sequence (even though it looks uncomfortably realistic) because the rattler had been milked and defanged and therefore posed no real threat to the ferret. In my opinion, the fight looks too realistic to have been anything but traumatic for the animals whether or not they survived. However, the real tragedy of the film is that the orangutan who portrayed Clyde was beaten to death by his trainer shortly after filming wrapped (reportedly for stealing donuts from the set). It is tragic to think of the basic care and respect that was denied these animals on set and regardless of the justifications of a different sociological climate, it is upsetting to hear of such horrific behavior in an otherwise delightfully joyful and silly movie.

With the sincere asterisk pinging the treatment of the animals on set (which may understandably upset certain viewers beyond excuse), Any Which Way You Can is an otherwise fun, delightful and charming entry for Eastwood. If viewers were remotely a fan of Every Which Way But Loose, viewing this sequel is a no-brainer, but it’s even easy to recommend for the casual viewer looking to see a bit of Eastwood’s lighter side.


Reed Lackey is based in Los Angeles, where he writes and podcasts about film and faith. His primary work is featured on the More Than One Lesson website and podcast, as well as his primary podcast, The Fear of God (which examines the intersection between Christianity and the horror genre). Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook to receive updates on his reviews and editorials.

The Evolution of Eastwood: BRONCO BILLY

BRONCO BILLY (1980)

I’ve got a special message for you little pardners out there. I want you to finish your oatmeal at breakfast and do as your mom and pa tell you because they know best. Don’t ever tell a lie and say your prayers at night before you go to bed. And as our friends south of the border say, ‘Adios, amigos.’” – Bronco Billy McCoy

Eastwood’s filmography had begun to take a surprising turn towards lighter and more optimistic material. His gritty revisionist westerns and ultra-violent cop thrillers had yielded to the comically whimsical Every Which Way but Loose and the understated suspense of Escape from Alcatraz. While these films are by no means family-oriented, they’re unquestionably lighter than Eastwood’s typical fare.

But then he directed Bronco Billy – a modern day fable steeped in idealism and sentiment thicker than frozen maple syrup. The script was written by the team of Dennis Hackin and Neal Dobrofsky (with only Hackin receiving eventual film credit) and Eastwood was immediately drawn to the material.

Bronco Billy chronicles the struggling days of a traveling Wild West Show, featuring an assortment of ex-convicts and deadbeats who pose as cowboys and Indians to entertain local communities. Led by “Bronco” Billy McCoy (Eastwood) the troupe frequently scrape by on little to no money, driven by their familial comradery and the joy that they bring to children or the less fortunate who enjoy their show. Billy can be ornery and stubborn, but he has an open heart and a loyal spirit. When the troupe encounters the feisty Antoinette Lily (Sondra Locke) – a woman who had been abandoned and left penniless by her new husband (Geoffrey Lewis) – she is initially skeptical of their benevolence and idealism, but eventually comes to genuinely admire Billy and his team. However, her disappearance has left her husband a suspected murderer and an inheritance in question. While the troupe debates about whether her presence is bad or good luck, Billy is determined to keep his Wild West Show alive and smiling for as long as humanly possible.

It is immediately evident, even without any meta-knowledge of the production, that this became a very personal work for Eastwood. He strikes a tone with Bronco Billy that we’ve yet to see from him. Even the tenderness he displayed in Breezy was offset by a heavy and mature narrative. But with Bronco Billy, Eastwood forays into outright sentiment, and delivers a surprisingly charming and good-natured film (something which does feel truly rare in his catalogue). The wackiness of Every Which Way but Loose may have set the stage for the lighter material, but that film carried a sarcastic bite with its fun. Bronco Billy, by contrast, isn’t remotely cynical. Both in the character of Billy McCoy and in the good-natured dynamic of his acting troupe, the film dares to explore something truly anomalous in Eastwood’s filmography thus far: that not only does your past not have to define you, but you can actively be whoever you set out to be.

Eastwood’s films are often mired in consequence and detriment, burdened by the weight of moral ambiguity and a painfully haunted landscape (whether the bullet-riddled west or the streets of San Francisco). But Bronco Billy never pulls the rug out from under its optimism. There are complications along the way – sometimes dire ones – but there is a firm undercurrent of hope that feels genuinely refreshing for someone like Eastwood to express. Billy’s troupe of characters are all losers according to common standards, but Billy has given them a place and a chance to move beyond those distinctions. True, he isn’t perfect (just check out the tongue-lashing he gives to his whole gang when they dare to ask about payment after six months), but he’s genuine, and that’s the real irony and charm of his character. Billy McCoy is an ex-con and a louse, but by pretending to be “Bronco Billy” his more authentic self emerges and produces something impressive and joyful (even when the bits they perform go comically wrong).

Eastwood surrounded himself with dependable performers who could authenticate the material: Geoffrey Lewis who had previously co-starred in Thunderbolt and Lightfoot and – more recently – Every Which Way but Loose; the charismatic and boisterous character actor, Scatman Crothers; and in her fourth collaboration with real-life partner Eastwood – Sondra Locke. All of them deliver earnest and entertaining performances, making Bronco Billy a disarmingly enjoyable – if somewhat slower paced – piece. Eastwood himself delivers a surprisingly sensitive performance, juggling comic timing and tenderness in equal measure to his trademark tough squint.

Bronco Billy wasn’t a huge success at the box office (although it was profitable), but was praised among most critics. Eastwood often spoke of that film in personal and affectionate terms. He is quoted as saying, “It was an old-fashioned theme, probably too old fashioned since the film didn’t do as well as we hoped. But if, as a film director, I ever wanted to say something, you’ll find it in Bronco Billy.” Speaking for myself, I found the film to be a refreshingly heartfelt piece of work. Not only was it not diluted by its overt sentiment, that sentiment made it all the more endearing and worth seeking out.


Reed Lackey is based in Los Angeles, where he writes and podcasts about film and faith. His primary work is featured on the More Than One Lesson website and podcast, as well as his primary podcast, The Fear of God (which examines the intersection between Christianity and the horror genre). Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook to receive updates on his reviews and editorials.

The Evolution of Eastwood: ESCAPE FROM ALCATRAZ

ESCAPE FROM ALCATRAZ (1979)

“I may have found a way out of here.” – Frank Morris

Aspiring writer Richard Tuggle had painstakingly researched and adapted a script about the only potentially successful escape attempt from the world’s most notorious prison. He submitted it to multiple agencies and was consistently rejected. Finally, he sought out the agent of Don Siegel and cleverly deceived a way to get his script to him. Siegel read the script and enjoyed it, passing it on to Eastwood as their next potential partnership.

Siegel and Eastwood, once close friends and frequent collaborators, had not made a film together since the original Dirty Harry (in which Eastwood had even directed a few scenes). Eastwood agreed to let his old friend direct if the film could be made through Malpaso Productions (Eastwood’s film company which had produced nearly every film in which he’d been involved since Hang ‘Em High). Siegel wanted production credit, however, and went around Eastwood to acquire the script directly. This choice created tension between the longstanding friends and would seal Escape from Alcatraz – their fifth collaboration – as their final one.

The film tells the true story of Frank Morris (Eastwood), who partnered with the Anglin brothers to mount an escape from the legendary Alcatraz prison in 1962. The film presents the prison warden (Patrick McGoohan) as a cold and cruel figure, choosing not to have him represent a real warden from the prison but rather a fictional archetype. The prisoners suffer various injustices at the hands of the guards and the warden, pushing Morris to develop a risky plan of escape.

Escape from Alcatraz is a different breed of thriller for Eastwood, allowing a deliberate pace to develop tension over an extended time rather than in a series of action bursts. The first half of the film is almost entirely dramatic in nature, establishing a variety of characters within the prison community and the various troubles the inmates suffer while there. Eventually the casualties and restrictions become too oppressive and the second half of the film becomes an escalating puzzle of tension as our characters struggle to enact their plan without being caught by the rigorous routines of the guards.

The performances are unanimously solid, featuring particularly strong turns from Robert Blossoms and Paul Benjamin (and a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him appearance by Danny Glover in his feature film debut). Patrick McGoohan is expectedly dastardly in a role perfectly suited for his special brand of passive malevolence. The film’s script is also remarkable in its focus, despite having little in the way of spectacle or shock and nothing in the way of romance. Whether or not the facts presented are authentic, the film’s tone makes you think that this all went down precisely how you’re seeing it, including the unstated but heavily implied outcome of the escape itself.

The pairing of Eastwood and Siegel has typically yielded strong work from each of them (Coogan’s Bluff was a real dud to me, but Two Mules for Sister Sara, The Beguiled, and especially Dirty Harry are all standouts in Eastwood’s filmography). Escape from Alcatraz represents strong work yet again, albeit of a more restrained variety. It would be easy to sympathize with viewers who are put off by the bridled pace, but chances are strong that most viewers will find the steadily ratcheting tension rewarding and compelling.

It is unfortunate that this marked their last partnership, but it is not wholly unexpected. Eastwood had reached a point in his career where he’d had too many established hits (particularly as a director) and it’s easy to imagine that they’d both outgrown the mentor/performer dynamic that had flavored their earlier collaborations. Presumably, they patched up their differences prior to Siegel’s death in 1991, but there would never be another film from the pairing that was most directly responsible (apart from Sergio Leone’s western trilogy) for Eastwood’s rise and development as a star. As finales go, Escape from Alcatraz may not be the biggest possible hit, but it’s an impressive work nonetheless.


Reed Lackey is based in Los Angeles, where he writes and podcasts about film and faith. His primary work is featured on the More Than One Lesson website and podcast, as well as his primary podcast, The Fear of God (which examines the intersection between Christianity and the horror genre). Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook to receive updates on his reviews and editorials.

The Evolution of Eastwood: EVERY WHICH WAY BUT LOOSE

EVERY WHICH WAY BUT LOOSE (1978)

“I’m not afraid of any man, but when it comes to sharing my feelings with a woman, my stomach turns to royal gelatin.” – Philo Beddoe

Every Which Way but Loose is often cited as one of the oddest entries in Eastwood’s catalogue. It’s also the highest-grossing hit of his career, even when adjusted for inflation. The film reunites Eastwood with his former costars Geoffrey Lewis (from Thunderbolt and Lightfoot) and Sondra Locke (who was quickly becoming a staple of Eastwood’s material). It also pairs him up with Academy Award Winner Ruth Gordon and an infectiously entertaining orangutan named “Clyde”. Clyde is most definitely a scene-stealer (although rumors of mistreatment by his trainer sour the fun of the film more than a little bit).

The story involves a blue-collar trucker named Philo Beddoe (Eastwood) who makes extra money on the side bare-knuckle brawling in underground fighting rings. He’s frequently compared to the legend of that arena, Tank Murdock, who he dreams of someday getting the chance to defeat. After Beddoe meets the lovely and mysterious country singer Lynn Halsey-Taylor (Locke), he sets aside nearly all priorities to pursue her and woo her. The somewhat zany antics that he and his buddy Orville (Lewis), not to mention the ever-present Clyde, encounter along the way make up the bulk of the narrative of the film (and nearly all of the fun). Both the romance and the fighting plotlines take some surprising turns adding up to a genuinely entertaining (if still vitally flawed) film.

Every Which Way but Loose is constantly referred to as a “change of pace” or “uncharacteristic” for Eastwood. But I found that designation puzzling after viewing his first 20+ films. True, it isn’t as dark or violent as the Dirty Harry films or any of Eastwood’s westerns, and it doesn’t feature ambitious action sequences like The Eiger Sanction or The Gauntlet. But apart from the overtly comedic elements (of which there are a multitude), this feels almost like textbook Eastwood material. Eastwood is once again playing a no-nonsense tough guy, who frequently scores with the ladies and embodies an almost western-style machismo.

The comedy is certainly uncharacteristic for Eastwood (the closest he’d come to it before was the disastrous Paint Your Wagon), but Eastwood spends most of the narrative as the straight man, allowing the eccentric Ruth Gordon, Clyde, and Geoffrey Lewis to handle most of the comedy. Eastwood is so firmly a man’s-man in this film that it almost becomes absurd how skilled he is as a brawler. Even the resolution to the final fight – which attempts to add some unexpected flavor to the character – feels so unearned and predictable as to be laughable rather than admirable.

As for the supporting cast, everyone is delivering solid work. Gordon had won an Oscar for Rosemary’s Baby and she brings the full force of her absurd-but-believable comedic powers to this role. Lewis is given a greater chance to play with different character beats – all of which he deftly handles – and the endearing orangutan Clyde is as charming as you’d expect him to be. Locke, who delivered a remarkable performance in The Gauntlet, stretches herself performance-wise by showing off her singing chops, but otherwise brings a similar catalogue of character choices to the role. It’s not a step down from The Gauntlet for her, but amidst a collection of stronger fellow supporting players, she doesn’t stand out quite as much as she did in Gauntlet.

Eastwood was advised against making this film and – as he usually did – he trusted his instincts more than the voices of his advisors. He didn’t direct the film, though. Those duties fell once again to James Fargo, who had directed Eastwood – if that’s what you can call it – in The Enforcer. There are no apparent rumors of on-set drama this time around and the resulting film was wholeheartedly embraced by audiences despite only being met with lackluster reviews from critics.

It also launched a series of more family-friendly and accessible films which would represent one of the most surprising and interesting periods in Eastwood’s filmography. The film remains the biggest money-maker of Eastwood’s career (and in the top 200 biggest box offices in cinema history). Having now seen the film, I’m uncertain it deserves that particular pedigree, but it is undeniably charming in its own way… or, every which way… something like that. You know what I mean.


Reed Lackey is based in Los Angeles, where he writes and podcasts about film and faith. His primary work is featured on the More Than One Lesson website and podcast, as well as his primary podcast, The Fear of God (which examines the intersection between Christianity and the horror genre). Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook to receive updates on his reviews and editorials.

The Evolution of Eastwood: THE GAUNTLET

THE GAUNTLET (1977)

I’m warning ya, you mess around and I’ll put the cuffs on you. You talk dirty, I gag ya, if you run, I’ll shoot you. My name is Shockley, and we’ve got a plane to catch. Let’s go.” – Ben Shockley

The script for The Gauntlet had been bouncing around development for a while before it landed with Eastwood. Previously attached stars included Marlon Brando, Steve McQueen, and even Barbara Streisand. When Eastwood eventually signed on to direct, he cast himself alongside his then real-life romantic partner Sondra Locke (who had first appeared with Eastwood in The Outlaw Josey Wales).

The narrative is, in many ways, reminiscent of Eastwood’s much earlier film Coogan’s Bluff. In fact, several comparative narrative beats made me wonder if there wasn’t a subconscious desire on Eastwood’s part to try that basic story again, this time helming the directorial duties himself. The premise is that drunk and disillusioned officer Ben Shockley (Eastwood) is sent on assignment to extradite a witness named “Gus” Malley for a “nothing trial”. Upon arrival, Shockley quickly realizes that someone powerful would do anything to make sure that neither he nor Malley makes it back to Phoenix alive, and the pair of them must navigate a treacherous series of ambushes, traps, and unfortunate encounters before eventually facing down a multi-block, heavily armed barricade.

The two films are similar in their basic extradition plotline and in the narrative elements of the protagonist stepping into trouble beyond his original understanding. But there are some major differences between The Gauntlet and Coogan’s Bluff that make The Gauntlet the unquestionably stronger film.

First and foremost is the presence of Locke as the feisty and resourceful Malley. Locke wasn’t given much to do acting-wise in The Outlaw Josey Wales except for pine, swoon, and worry (all of which she still managed to make believable). With the character of Malley, she is given a much richer character and she attacks the role with commitment and complexity. She steals nearly every scene she’s in (which is most of the movie) and the real-life chemistry between her and Eastwood make their dynamic on screen frequently crackle.

The script is also tighter and more direct, with a more logical and focused direction to its narrative. There are some obvious contrivances and conveniences, a handful of which may very well elicit eye rolls, but the general structure is noticeably stronger than Coogan’s Bluff. However, the script could have done more with its character development and presented a less outlandish resolution to the central conflict. When viewed in reference to the similarly-premised earlier film, the script shines. But taken as an isolated piece, it’s pretty pedestrian.

Eastwood himself is as reliable as always, boosted substantially by getting to work with Locke. As an actor, there isn’t much surprise here, but as a director it’s both a step forward and backward. It lacks nearly all of the rich thematic exploration of The Outlaw Josey Wales, which makes it feel somewhat regressive – I forgot several times in the viewing of it that Eastwood directed it. However, as an action thriller, Eastwood deftly navigates some authentically thrilling sequences. His experiences on The Eiger Sanction were more ambitious (and dangerous), but his instincts for pacing the thrills take a big step forward here. Nearly a fifth of the film’s budget was spent solely on the action effects and that investment shows on-screen.

All of this adds up to something of a mixed bag. The script is mostly innocuous (not to mention frequently trite and unbelievable), but the action sequences are genuinely exciting (particularly the bombardment of its outrageous climactic journey through the gun-saturated city streets) and Sondra Locke delivers a compelling and interesting performance. Fans of Eastwood’s more rough-and-tumble thrillers will find a lot to enjoy, but those looking for something with more depth or substance might be left shrugging it off.


Reed Lackey is based in Los Angeles, where he writes and podcasts about film and faith. His primary work is featured on the More Than One Lesson website and podcast, as well as his primary podcast, The Fear of God (which examines the intersection between Christianity and the horror genre). Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook to receive updates on his reviews and editorials.

You Should Be Watching: May 10-16

Welcome to You Should Be Watching, my weekly opportunity to introduce you to a variety of great films, gems of the past and present, available for you to stream from Netflix, Amazon Prime, FilmStruck, and anywhere else streams are found. I highlight films that come with my personal recommendation as well as provide a list of notable titles that are coming and going so you’re sure not to miss out on the good stuff.

 


STREAMING PICKS OF THE WEEK


Modern Times

  

 

Year: 1936

Director: Charles Chaplin

Genre: Comedy, Drama

Cast: Charlie Chaplin, Paulette Goddard, Henry Bergman, Tiny Sandford, Chester Conklin, Hank Mann, Stanley Blystone, Al Ernest Garcia, Richard Alexander, Cecil Reynolds, Mira McKinney, Murdock MacQuarrie, Wilfred Lucas, Edward LeSaint, Fred Malatesta, Sammy Stein, Juana Sutton, Ted Oliver, Gloria DeHaven, Norman Ainsley, Bobby Barber, Chuck Hamilton, Jack Low, Harry Wilson, Heinie Conklin, Bruce Mitchell, Lloyd Ingraham, Walter James, Buddy Messinger

 

Last week, I highlighted the legendary icon of silent film Charles Chaplin through the biopic about his life simply called Chaplin, which stars a young Robert Downey Jr. Consequently, this week, I’m taking you back a half century further to recommend Charlie himself in a mid-career film that will have the whole family cracking up at Chaplin’s antics (yes, you should share this and other silent movies with your kids). But there’s a reason Chaplin titled this film Modern Times, and he has much more to offer than mere slapstick. Chaplin, playing the part of A Factory Worker amidst The Great Depression, applies a humorous twist on key issues of the day, not unlike modern day socioeconomic concerns, through a series of loosely connected set pieces. Regardless whether he’s exploring the relentless, dehumanizing nature of industrialism via the machines of the assembly line, taking on the problem of political witch hunts, or celebrating romantic love among the destitute, he makes your laughter mean something. You may even feel your heartstrings plucked, and speaking of the love relationship, Paulette Goddard holds her own against Chaplin and lights up the screen every time she appears.


 

Temple Grandin

    

Year: 2010

Director: Mick Jackson

Genre: Biography, Drama

Cast: Claire Danes, Catherine O’Hara, Julia Ormond, David Strathairn, Melissa Farman, Barry Tubb, Cherami Leigh, Tamara Jolaine, Charles Baker, Blair Bomar, David Born, Chloë Evans, Jordan Strassner, Michael D. Conway, Xochitl Romero, Joe Nemmers, Richard Dillard, David Blackwell, Toby Metcalf, Brady Coleman, Silver Renee, Chad McMinn, Nicole Holt, Jake Messinger, Cynthia Huerta, Jessica Wilson, Cassandra L. Small, Kurt Cole, William Akey

 

While I’ve certainly enjoyed seeing Claire Danes in many of her other roles, nothing could have prepared me for seeing her inhabit the role of Temple Grandin, who was among the first people with autism to publicly share their personal experience of living with it. If this were the only role I’d seen Danes play, I’d assume she herself had some form of autism. As it is, she’s practically unrecognizable, not only in her appearance, but in her very attempts at speaking and expressing herself. Her Golden Globe for Best Actress was well deserved.

Temple’s story is remarkable and represents and is among the most fascinating, well-made, and inspiring biopics I’ve seen. She is a brilliant, motivated woman of outstanding character. But early in her life, because of her condition, she refused to speak and threw frequent temper tantrums, leaving her tragically misunderstood and mistreated by her parents and ultimately misdiagnosed as was common at the time. Thankfully, that was only the beginning of her story, and through the journey, you’ll see the amazing things she has accomplished and hopefully gain empathy and a much greater understanding and appreciation for a group of people who are so easily dismissed.

NOTE: The last day to stream Temple Grandin on Amazon Prime is May 21.


 

Changeling


Year: 2008

Director: Clint Eastwood

Genre: Crime, Mystery, Drama

Cast: Angelina Jolie, Jeffrey Donovan, John Malkovich, Geoff Pierson, Amy Ryan, Gattlin Griffith, Michelle Gunn, Frank Wood, Colm Feore, Michael Kelly, Denis O’Hare, Jeffrey Hutchinson, Devon Conti, Peter Breitmayer, Antonia Bennett, Erica Grant, Jan Devereaux, Kerri Randles, Morgan Eastwood, Ric Sarabia, Debra Christofferson, Russell Edge, Mary Stein, Gregg Binkley, E.J. Callahan, Reed Birney, Colby French, Kelly Lynn Warren, Richard King

 

For a Clint Eastwood-directed film that’s only 10 years old, Changeling is curiously absent from the cultural consciousness and is criminally underrated. This gripping, stylish Twilight Zone-esque mystery dramatizes the stranger-than-fiction events surrounding Christine Collins (played by Angelina Jolie) and the disappearance of her son Walter. The screenwriter himself, J. Michael Straczynski, in researching the details of the true events found the story so bizarre he thought it couldn’t be real. Being set in 1920s L.A. gives Eastwood a veritable playground of ideas to explore, from the city’s attempts to present a glamorous facade to brutality and corruption within the police force. But through his expert direction and some great casting including Jeffrey Donovan as the police captain, John Malkovich playing against type as Reverend Briegleb and especially with Jolie’s passionate Oscar-nominated performance, the most important quality that’s on display is the unbreakable bond between a missing son and a mother who will go through hell just for the possibility of getting him back.


 

Breakdown

      

Year: 1997

Director: Jonathan Mostow

Genre: Action, Drama, Thriller

Cast: Kurt Russell, J.T. Walsh, Kathleen Quinlan, M.C. Gainey, Jack Noseworthy, Rex Linn, Ritch Brinkley, Moira Harris, Kim Robillard, Thomas Kopache, Jack McGee, Vincent Berry, Helen Duffy, Ancel Cook, Gene Hartline

 

To finish, let’s go back to 90s thriller territory with Jonathan Mostow’s standout suspense ride Breakdown, which is another Twilight Zone-type story about a disappearance that contains more than faint echoes of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes and Steven Spielberg’s Duel. Kurt Russell is in prime form here as yuppie Jeff Taylor, husband to Amy (Kathleen Quinlan) and opposite Russell, J.T. Walsh is wonderfully unnerving. The movie starts out simple enough with the couple driving across the country in their brand new Jeep, but before long they have car trouble in the desert, they get separated while Amy gets a ride to go call for help at the only place around for miles, and then nothing. She has vanished without a sign, and an increasingly desperate and panicked husband can’t find anyone to believe his story. Mostow’s direction is focused and tight, always propelling the mystery, paranoia, and action forward. So once the tension starts, it doesn’t let up, leaving you with a thoroughly pulse-pounding experience.


COMING AND GOING


LAST CHANCE (last date to watch)

NETFLIX

May 11
Fruitvale Station (2013)
Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (2006)

May 15
Metropolis [Restored] (1927)

May 29
The Jungle Book (2016)

 

AMAZON PRIME

May 17
Red Dawn (1984)

May 18
Creed (2015)

May 21
Behind the Candelabra (2013)
Conspiracy (2001)
The Sunset Limited (2011)
Temple Grandin (2010)

 

FILMSTRUCK

May 11
Forbidden Planet (1956)

Werner Herzog:

Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972)
Fitzcarraldo (1982)
Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979)

May 16
Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)

May 18
Luchino Visconti:

La Terra Trema (1948)
The Leopard (1963)
Rocco and His Brothers (1960)

May 25
Carol Reed:

The Fallen Idol (1948)
The Third Man (1949)

May 31
High Noon (1952)

June 1
House of Flying Daggers (2004)
A Night At The Opera (1935)

 


 

JUST ARRIVED

NETFLIX

Faces Places (2017)

 

AMAZON PRIME

Warrior (2011)
Last Flag Flying — Amazon Original (2017)
Stories We Tell (2012)

 

FILMSTRUCK

David Lean Collection:

The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)
Doctor Zhivago (1965)
Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

Alphaville (1965)
Army of Shadows (1969)
Bob le Flambeur (1956)
Le Trou (1960)
Je T’aime, Je T’aime (1968)

 

HULU

Warrior (2011)


 

COMING THIS WEEK

NETFLIX

May 16
89 (2017)
The 40 Year Old Virgin (2005)
The Phantom of the Opera (2004)

 

AMAZON PRIME

May 12
Still Mine (2013)

 

HULU

May 12
Jane (2017)
Still Mine (2013)

 


Jacob Neff is a film enthusiast living east of Sacramento. In addition to his contributions as an admin of the Feelin’ Film Facebook group and website, he is an active participant in the Letterboxd community, where his film reviews can be found. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter to keep up with his latest thoughts and shared content.

The Evolution of Eastwood: The First Twenty Films

Ever since “the man with no name” rode through Sergio Leone’s haunted western territory, Eastwood seemed destined for greatness. His early filmography is populated mostly by westerns and cop thrillers (including perhaps his most signature role as “Dirty” Harry Callahan), with a few odd exceptions that would hint at some truly interesting things to come.

Having made this chronological journey through the first third of his filmography, I wanted to take a brief beat to examine some of the trends that emerged and identify some elements that defined the early period of his film career. There are absolutely elements deserving of praise, but also some disappointing trends as well. So, speaking in broad terms, here’s what I learned watching the first twenty films in “The Evolution of Eastwood”…

The Embodiment of Tough

One of the most common elements in each of Eastwood’s first twenty films is that he’s one intimidating s.o.b. His trademark squint (which first emerged as an accident due to lighting on the set of A Fistful of Dollars) would come to represent that steely, cold iron that apparently serves as a spine to each of his characters. In every single film, Eastwood’s character never loses a one-on-one fist fight (or gunfight for that matter) and the few times that he is subdued, it’s because of a multi-man ambush (for which he always doles out revenge). There are only two times in this early track in which Eastwood plays a remotely vulnerable character against whom the odds are sufficiently stacked. And, ironically, in both cases his opponents are women.

Misogyny Overload

I’ll not mince words here – in both his films (and apparently his personal life) – Eastwood doesn’t have a very upstanding reputation with women. His personal life is littered with numerous rumors of affairs (and an undetermined amount of children) and some of the authenticated details of his longer-term relationships don’t paint him in the best light. That sensibility makes its way into most of his on-screen personas as well, as he frequently seduces or coerces women into lovemaking only to treat them with rather questionable dignity afterwards. In High Plains Drifter, he outright rapes a woman in the first fifteen minutes of the film (a narrative element that is in direct alignment with the tone and theme of the film, but is disturbing nonetheless). It is interesting to me, then, that two of his stronger and more compelling films (Play Misty for Me and The Beguiled) feature him playing a character at the mercy of powerful (but unfortunately crazy) women. Both of those films represent strong pieces of filmmaking and strong performances from Eastwood, but it does little to dilute the already misogynistic trends in his early filmography.

Two major exceptions here is Shirley Maclaine’s turn in Two Mules for Sister Sara, which features a strong and resourceful woman, and Kay Lenz’s portrayal in Breezy (which Eastwood actually directed without starring in it). However, in both films, despite the maturity and actualization of the Maclaine’s and Lenz’s characters, they still fall for men who are of at least moderately questionable character – and who still exhibit disappointing attitudes towards women. These criticisms could be hurled as much at the sensibilities of the era in which Eastwood rose to fame as they could at Eastwood himself (more-so probably), but when taken in large chunks of viewing like this, the trends are hard to ignore or excuse.

A Question of Ethics

One of the most compelling and fascinating elements of Eastwood’s filmography is the consistent exploration of questionable ethics and morals. From his very first feature film (A Fistful of Dollars) through his dramas and thrillers, he is constantly exploring characters with foggy boundaries dividing right from wrong.

Take, as a brief example, his signature character of Dirty Harry. Harry Callahan is often a cold-blooded vigilante, frequently breaking the law to uphold it, who stubbornly denies the rights of criminals to protect the rights of victims. The dark complexity of the violence in those films caused several other A-listers to give it a hard pass, but it fit in perfectly with Eastwood’s revisionist persona of icons. His western heroes have sensitivity towards common everyman, but they are ruthless and cold-hearted towards the villains. This is never more deeply embodied than in his disturbing but powerful film High Plains Drifter, in which the very notion of justice as served by a devil is explored. Even in his lesser known mission/war films such as Kelly’s Heroes, Where Eagles Dare, or The Eiger Sanction, Eastwood is dealing with the stories of assassins, thieves, and deserters for whom the films frequently encourage us to root and cheer on.

There is not a single film in Eastwood’s first twenty that doesn’t contain at its core a complicated moral dilemma, most especially in the westerns and cop thrillers, and it’s much of what makes his work so interesting overall, even when the individual entries are sub-par.

The Ones You Shouldn’t Miss

The “man with no name” trilogy which launched Eastwood’s cinematic career is highly deserving of the attention it receives (with The Good, the Bad, & the Ugly getting the most recognition, although my personal favorite was For a Few Dollars More). But if someone wanted to separate out the best from the rest, here are my recommendations of the five films you should seek out to get a well-rounded picture of his early career:

For a Few Dollars More

I’m likely to be court-martialed for this, but I still say this is a stronger film than The Good, the Bad, & the Ugly. The sheer scope and grandeur of GB&U give it tremendous credibility, but For a Few Dollars More is tighter, more suspenseful, and pushes nearly all of the same entertainment buttons (not to mention that it features the trilogy’s most compelling villain in Gian Maria Volonte’s volcanic performance). Ideally, the entire trilogy deserves to be seen, but all of the best elements of its power are on prime display in this middle chapter.

Kelly’s Heroes

It’s far from essential. Heck, it’s barely important. But Eastwood’s early films are populated with either westerns, thrillers, or mission films, and the best of that third category in my opinion is Kelly’s Heroes. What primarily makes it work so well is the outstanding supporting cast (Donald Sutherland, Don Rickles, Telly Savalas, etc.). Eastwood himself is not even that prominent in the most memorable moments, but the overall impact of the film is fun and entertaining and if you want to experience some of the ensemble adventures that Eastwood chased after in a handful of these early films, give Kelly’s Heroes a look.

Play Misty for Me

Clint Eastwood’s directorial debut is extremely impressive. It benefits from not being terribly ambitious, but it is still a tightly wound, deeply tense suspense thriller that maintains every inch of its power nearly fifty years later (thanks in large part to the phenomenal performance by Jessica Walter). I would recommend this film even apart from the interest in Eastwood’s filmography because it’s such a powerfully effective work of minimalist filmmaking. And I would, without qualification, consider it essential viewing for any fans of suspense thrillers. It’s great. Watch it.

Dirty Harry

The original film that launched Eastwood’s most extensive franchise is unquestionably one of the most affecting films of his career. Directed by Eastwood friend and mentor Don Siegel, the film represents so much of the themes and characteristics of Eastwood’s appeal as a performer and persona. Harry Callahan remains one of the benchmarks for tough, take-no-crap heroism that culturally even rivals the strongest work of Willis, Stallone, and Norris. But what makes this first film so remarkable is the complexity of its theme and the vibrance of its style. Love it or hate it, it’s hard to deny the power and impact of Dirty Harry.

The Outlaw Josey Wales

It lacks the brutality of nearly all of his other westerns. It lacks the propulsive pace of his thrillers and adventure films. But if you asked me to select just one film from Eastwood’s early years for you to watch, I would (with only brief hesitation) point you towards The Outlaw Josey Wales. At this stage in his career, Eastwood was more firmly developing his own distinct voice as a storyteller, and he had spent enough time in the genre to know where he could push the boundaries and where to hold the line. Although first-time viewers may find the episodic narrative challenging to navigate and the occasionally deliberate pacing difficult to maintain, chances are strong that the film’s more sensitive core will resonate long after the first viewing is completed. It is a film with as much heart as it has guts and a troubled soul anchored deep within its story that is nearly impossible to dismiss. And despite some stellar other entries, The Outlaw Josey Wales gets my vote for the best film of Eastwood’s first third.


Reed Lackey is based in Los Angeles, where he writes and podcasts about film and faith. His primary work is featured on the More Than One Lesson website and podcast, as well as his primary podcast, The Fear of God (which examines the intersection between Christianity and the horror genre). Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook to receive updates on his reviews and editorials.

The Evolution of Eastwood: THE ENFORCER

THE ENFORCER (1976)

“You laugh at me, you bastard, and I’ll shoot you where you stand.” – Kate Moore

“Dirty” Harry Callahan is at it a third time. This time around, we get a tease of some unconventionality; but we ultimately wind up with the same old formula, which by this time is growing a bit stale.

Eastwood had every intention of helming the director’s duties for The Enforcer, but having overtaken directorial duties for The Outlaw Josey Wales (in a somewhat controversial move which you can read about in my review of that film) left him without enough time to prepare to direct again so soon. Instead, Eastwood made a rather clever decision to promote his longtime assistant director James Fargo to fully helm the film. The partnership allowed Eastwood to ease back on the responsibilities, promote a longtime collaborator, and still manage to maintain control of the production given the longstanding dynamic between him and Fargo. The resulting production was very smooth and efficiently run.

The plot this time revolves around a domestic terrorist who kidnaps the mayor. Callahan, having lost yet another partner, is teamed up with newcomer Kate Moore (played by Tyne Daly), who was hired because of affirmative action on the behalf of gender diversity. Callahan has strong reservations against working with a woman, but Moore eventually earns his respect when she displays integrity at the cost of a promotional award. The pair of them step right up to the edge of romance, but their partnership is cut short before things can come to fruition between them, resulting in a bittersweet victory in what was intended to be the final Dirty Harry film.

There are a handful of merits to the film, primarily revolving around Daly’s performance and the performance of Albert Popwell as a gang leader informant with complex motivations. But rumor has it that the original scripts focused more deliberately on character work, which made Eastwood nervous that audiences would reject it without more action sequences. I would have loved to have seen the resulting film from those more character-centric treatments, as one of the largest criticisms I have for the film is its formulaic treatment of decisively unformulaic characters. There are at least four fascinating characters introduced in this film, not to mention the compelling elements of Callahan himself, which are painfully treated with clichés and predictable ends.

Fans of the more procedural variety of cop thrillers may genuinely enjoy this, and there’s enough of the classic Dirty Harry vibe to satisfy fans of the first two installments, but given the rich style of the first film and the thematic deepening of the second film (and most especially following right on the heels of the powerfully complex film The Outlaw Josey Wales), The Enforcer feels very much like it’s phoning in too many of its elements. It’s not bad, it’s just not very good. Eastwood is as dependable as ever, but he isn’t bringing much complexity to the character – Callahan feels more plastic in this film than he has in either of the previous two installments, which is disappointing.

Particularly disappointing is the treatment of Moore, a treatment which caused Tyne Daly to turn down the role no less than three times before ultimately being convinced to accept it. Both in Daly as a performer and in Moore as a character, there was an opportunity in this film to make some fascinating statements about women in traditionally male-dominated roles (which would have come quite a long way in righting the ship for the treatment of women in Eastwood’s filmography as a whole). But sadly, the choices made are mostly the less interesting and more common ones, especially where the film lands with the character. It may be a bit harsh of me, but in my opinion Daly’s talents are wasted here. She’s an immensely compelling performer and a master of subtle strength. It’s a real shame to think about what she might have given us in this role with a bit more liberty from the script.

It’s easy to see why this film was intended to be the final Dirty Harry film (spoiler alert – it isn’t). There is a certain weariness, both to the character of Harry Callahan and the now-predictable formula of his perils (and the terminal perils of whoever is unlucky enough to partner him). It makes this film a little difficult to recommend, and certainly not the first place to start in the Dirty Harry franchise. Although the film does have some familiarity that fans of the genre will enjoy, it’s an otherwise largely forgettable entry both in its sub-genre and in Eastwood’s filmography.


Reed Lackey is based in Los Angeles, where he writes and podcasts about film and faith. His primary work is featured on the More Than One Lesson website and podcast, as well as his primary podcast, The Fear of God (which examines the intersection between Christianity and the horror genre). Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook to receive updates on his reviews and editorials.

The Evolution of Eastwood: THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES

THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES (1976)

“Are you gonna pull those pistols or whistle Dixie?” – Josey Wales

Returning again to the Wild West for the first time since High Plains Drifter, The Outlaw Josey Wales is one of the most ambitious (and one of the most effective) projects in which Eastwood had yet been involved. A meditation on loss and regret, and the casualties of war, both physically and spiritually.

Clint Eastwood wasn’t originally supposed to direct The Outlaw Josey Wales. Those duties were originally assigned to Philip Kaufman, who helped adapt the novel along with Sonia Chernus and Michael Cimino (who had written and directed Thunderbolt and Lightfoot). But Eastwood (who had invested some of his personal funds into obtaining the film rights to the original novel) had strong differences of opinion to Kaufman’s style of direction and even occasionally undermined some of Kaufman’s choices on set. The two of them also had fundamental interpretive differences over foundational and thematic elements of the narrative.

Eventually, Eastwood fired Kaufman (conveniently following all of the primary pre-production work Kaufman had done) and persuaded Warner Bros. to support his decision when the Directors Guild tried to challenge the termination. Eastwood himself took up directorial duties, but the scandal led to a new stipulation in the DGA (colloquially called “The Eastwood Rule”) that would prevent major stars of projects from pressuring studios to fire the project’s director and assign them the job. Despite the tumultuous production (and the potentially poor marks on Eastwood’s character), the film is a fantastic work: deeply affecting, thematically rich, and ultimately unforgettable.

Narratively, The Outlaw Josey Wales is also episodic in structure (following the pattern of Eastwood’s recent films Thunderbolt and Lightfoot and The Eiger Sanction). It follows the Civil-War era struggles of the titular character Josey Wales (Eastwood), who, after witnessing the brutal murder of his wife and son at the hand of Union renegades called “Redlegs”, joins a band of outlaws seeking to combat the Union army guerrilla style. After the war ends, the outlaws are offered pardon if they surrender peacefully, and all but Wales accept the offer. Unfortunately, the offer was a trap and the entire group is slaughtered. Except, of course, for Josey Wales. What follows is a series of adventures in which Wales, on the run from the Redlegs, collects and begins to lead a group of various wanderers and restless travelers who seek only peace and dignity in the Civil War’s aftermath.

Thematically, this is one of Eastwood’s most ambitious films yet. Eastwood’s presence in the western genre has always prompted a revision to the traditional “white-hat” vision of cowboys. “Good” and “bad” are not simple designations in any of Eastwood’s westerns, whether the Leone trilogy or his first directorial western, High Plains Drifter. But those films all operated in archetypes which they subverted to lesser and greater effect depending on the film, and although the Leone trilogy especially offers a lot in the way of substance, The Outlaw Josey Wales feels like the first of Eastwood’s westerns that’s attempting to seriously wrestle with the soul of war and its spiritual losses.

This is not to say that the film contains very much overt religious imagery or language, but that the tone of the film is introspective: interested far less in sequences of thrill and spectacle than of human connections and the disintegration of a peaceful landscape. There are thrilling sequences, and more than a handful of boisterous shoot-outs, but the meat of this material is in the reflections voiced by the characters before and after those more bombastic moments. This tone is also struck most directly when Josey Wales, weeping over the grave of his wife and son, quotes the biblical passage, “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away.” The film is not making a spiritual statement so much as exploring a spiritual landscape, and it’s stronger for it.

The supporting cast, both in performers and characters, is solid and colorful. From the comical philosopher-Indian Lone Watie (played by Chief Dan George), to the stoic and hardened Fletcher (John Vernon), and then to the lovely but strong pioneer Laura Lee (played by Sondra Locke, in what would begin a six-film professional and 14-year personal relationship with Eastwood). Various philosophies and poignant reflections are given to and delivered by each of the film’s supporting cast in turn, including an ill-fated youth, a cantankerous old woman, and a murderous Comanche chief, with whom Josey Wales has one of the most powerful and profound exchanges of the film. The result is a kaleidoscope of themes, perspectives, and possible conclusions, which would be confusing in a film of lesser focus or direction but shines brightly under Eastwood’s hand.

This also represents some of Eastwood’s finest work as an actor thus far in his career. Josey Wales as a character is melancholic and reclusive, which Eastwood has displayed countless times before. But unlike the “man with no name” or the “high plains drifter”, Josey Wales has not shifted into overt bitterness and bile. He is a character of deeply abiding compassion and, although deadly to any enemy who dares to cross him, he is a man of profound sympathy and discretion. Eastwood navigates this nuance with notable ease and delivers one of his most compelling characters as a result.

While The Outlaw Josey Wales may have been a somewhat controversial production, the final product is remarkably effective and confirms Eastwood’s standing as a storyteller of substance and merit. Fans of his grittier and more brutal westerns may find themselves somewhat disarmed by the quieter moments and more introspective tone in the film, perhaps even skirting to the very edge of boredom. But there is an undeniable maturity to this film that is worth casting aside expectations to experience.


Reed Lackey is based in Los Angeles, where he writes and podcasts about film and faith. His primary work is featured on the More Than One Lesson website and podcast, as well as his primary podcast, The Fear of God (which examines the intersection between Christianity and the horror genre). Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook to receive updates on his reviews and editorials.