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.

MOVIE REVIEW: Avengers: Infinity War

AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR (2018)

2 Hours and 29 Minutes (PG-13)

Marvel and The Russo Brothers had a very daunting task before them. Paying off the culmination of a decade of build-up and backstory, stretching over 18 films, is a challenge unlike any studio or director in Hollywood had ever faced. And to accomplish this feat, they worked with what has to be the largest cast of known stars ever assembled for a movie. The ambition of Marvel and its commitment to the cinematic universe it pioneered is worthy of praise and respect.

If there’s one thing I was looking for in Avengers: Infinity War, it was raised stakes. Much like the comic books these films are based on (in which characters rarely die and cities are destroyed without much afterthought), Marvel films have not fully dealt with loss in a way that seems realistic. Right from the start of Infinity War, though, Marvel makes it very clear that has changed. The potential consequences of a Thanos (Josh Brolin) victory are evident and the film progresses with an emotional weight and sense of urgency that it could not have attained if the studio followed its same old formula. This also creates much more investment in characters and the worlds they inhabit, and thus pays off quite a few very moving scenes in a much bigger way. If you haven’t cried in a Marvel movie before, you’re not alone, but this may be your first. I had genuine chills a few different times. But don’t worry, that trademark Marvel humor and witty one-liners are still there and won’t have you depressed for too long at a time.

Another area that Marvel outdoes previous films in their own franchise is with Thanos himself. Make no mistake, this is his film and his story. He is a fully developed villain with more screen time than any before him, and it helps to create a character with whom the audience can both despise and yet struggle with feelings of empathy for. Brolin’s talent is very obvious in this performance despite the incredible looking CGI that encompasses him. His Thanos is not just some loud, angry, destructive villain. He is intelligent and calculating. He is nuanced. He is cold, yes, but when he gives his reasons for what he wants to do with the Infinity Stones and why, in a very warped way it makes some sense. His presence as the foil to the Avengers and Guardians gives this film something unique and memorable.

With a cast this large it is inevitable that not everyone’s favorite will have the responsibility or amount of action they hope for. The Russo’s do an admirable job of balancing these heroes, however, and somehow left me feeling satisfied. Sure, a little more backstory or deeper character moments for them all would be nice, but it’s also unrealistic to expect in a single film of this length. By managing to give everyone at least one small moment in the sun, the Russo’s succeed where I believe many would have failed. Another result of keeping most character development small is that the film moves fast, pausing a few times for majorly impactful storyline beats, but mostly cutting between different groups of heroes working to accomplish different tasks. By keeping the heroes in smaller groups, we get to feel more focused when we’re with them, and enjoy the new forms of dialogue that emerge between characters who previously had not interacted.

The action in Avengers: Infinity War is, as expected, fantastic. Seeing heroes fight together with new gear and weapons, or teaming up in ways never experienced by movie goers before, was a huge treat. In one major battle that involves a host of heroes and countless alien attackers, the Silvestri score and rising stakes create a feeling similar to that in the Battle of the Pelennor Field from The Return of the King. While Avengers: Infinity War never quite reaches that level of epic, it comes much closer than many (myself included) ever thought possible.

VERDICT

If you’re thinking that this review is a but vague, please know that is by design. Fans have waited 10 years for this and going in with as little information possible is going to result in the best viewing experience. Avengers: Infinity War isn’t entirely unpredictable, but it’s got some surprises too. The historic puzzle that the Russo Brothers have put together is nothing short of amazing and will lend itself to multiple viewings. Perhaps that’s the highest praise possible for a film of this kind, that after it finished I immediately would have sat through those 2.5+ hours again. To sum it all up, Avengers: Infinity War lived up to the hype by being both entertaining and emotional. Well done, Marvel. Well done.

Rating:


Aaron White is a Seattle-based film critic and co-creator/co-host of the Feelin’ Film Podcast. He is also a member of the Seattle Film Critics Society. He writes reviews with a focus on how his expectations influenced his experience. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter to be notified when new content is posted.

The Evolution of Eastwood: THE EIGER SANCTION

THE EIGER SANCTION (1975)

You think it’s so awful the other side has a germ formula? It’s against the Geneva Convention, isn’t it, and they stole it from us. Well what the hell are we doing with it in the first place?” – Dr. Jonathan Hemlock

As a director, Clint Eastwood’s first three films showed remarkable diversity. Play Misty for Me was a tight and focused domestic thriller; High Plains Drifter was a gritty and haunted western; and Breezy was an understated and intimate romance.

The Eiger Sanction was unlike anything he’d helmed before and was unquestionably his most ambitious work yet as a director. It is part spy thriller, part adventure story, part murder mystery, and features some of the most challenging (and dangerous) location shooting in which Eastwood had yet been involved (in front of or behind the camera). The overall effect is exciting and entertaining, but the ambition does undermine the coherence in places.

Eastwood plays Dr. Jonathan Hemlock, a former assassin who currently holds a job as an art professor who has amassed a small fortune in confiscated paintings. Coerced by his former employer into completing a final job (called a “sanction”), he learns that to seek revenge for the death of a former colleague, he must train and prepare to join a mountain climbing exhibition in which one of his teammates is also an assassin. Not only is the assassin’s identity a secret, but the mountain he will be forced to climb is one Hemlock had tried and failed to climb twice before. Motivated by revenge for his friend and the prospect of life-long freedom from the assassination profession, Hemlock agrees to train for and complete the “Eiger Sanction.”

To a lesser degree than his previous film, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (which Eastwood did not direct), The Eiger Sanction also has an episodic quality. The film could almost be broken into three very distinct acts which have their own internal climaxes and conclusions. The first act (featuring a brief assassination by Hemlock) is a relatively interesting subplot with good introductions to the major players of the film’s narrative. The third act, wherein the actual “Eiger Sanction” of the title takes place, is easily the most suspenseful and thrilling section of the film. It is the middle section, wherein Hemlock is training for his climb up the Eiger cliffs while simultaneously evading the threat of an eccentric opponent, that threatens to wear out the film’s welcome.

Eastwood had grown disdainful of extensive rewrites to scripts and it’s easy to recognize that the script for The Eiger Sanction could have used some tightening. The middle act certainly has merit, there are decent character moments for Eastwood and for George Kennedy (who Eastwood had befriended on the set of Thunderbolt and Lightfoot and specifically sought out for this film). But it is far too extended given our awareness that the actual Eiger climb is still pending and occasionally offensive in its treatment of the character of Miles Mellough (played by Jack Cassidy) as a caricatured homosexual spy. There are even a few cringe-worthy lines in Hemlock’s seduction of a romantic interest that would likely cause significant controversy today.

Eastwood’s performance is solid as always, but also not tremendously impressive. There’s something to be said for those performers who are so skilled at their craft and so natural within their niche that if they are always “good,” they are perhaps rarely “great,” and this appears to be the case with a lot of Eastwood’s early film work. He is so dependable as a performer that he rarely seems stretched within the narrative and does not explore character possibilities very often.

The scenes on the Eiger climb, however, are breathtaking. This section makes up a mere thirty minutes of the 2 hour plus runtime, but it is a rather intense thirty minutes (I’m actively resisting using the punny word “gripping”). Eastwood performed all his own stunts without the aid of trick photography or special effects, which makes the sequences all the more nerve-wracking. One tragic element, however, is that a crewman died during one of the excavations following a sudden rock slide. Eastwood is on record as having considered cancelling the production entirely out of respect for the crewmember but claims to have been encouraged to complete the film in his memory. The resulting footage is spectacular and one can imagine how jaw-dropping it must have been on the big screen.

Despite the head-scratching plot conveniences (of which there are several) and the patience-testing middle act, The Eiger Sanction still represents an assured and noteworthy achievement for Eastwood and an entertaining film overall. To tackle such an ambitious project with only three directorial credits behind him must have seemed intimidating. But then again, this is Clint Eastwood we’re discussing, so… perhaps not.


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: THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT

THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT (1974)

“You know somethin’? I don’t think of us as criminals, you know? I feel we accomplished something. A good job. I feel proud of myself, man. I feel like a hero.” — Lightfoot

Until this point, Eastwood’s films are easily identifiable by style and tone as being within a particular family: westerns, cop dramas, romances, etc. The only exception thus far would perhaps be The Beguiled, but there’s a case to be made for its place in the psychological horror club. But you’d be excused, should the conversation arise, for not quite knowing how to categorize Thunderbolt and Lightfoot.

It begins with elements of screwball comedy and buddy-road movies before shifting to the realms of introspective drama and heist films. It isn’t until the final few moments of the film that you realize you’ve actually been witnessing the life cycle of a friendship: the rare drama which centers around a relationship between two men which is intimate without being sexualized and affecting without being manipulative.

When we first meet the titular characters of Thunderbolt (Eastwood) and Lightfoot (Jeff Bridges), Thunderbolt is posing as a small town preacher trying to lay low while being pursued by three of his former heist partners. A coincidental encounter forces Thunderbolt on the run again, directly crossing paths with the affable and carefree young Lightfoot. The two of them embark on a road adventure attempting to flee Thunderbolt’s old partners, eventually being overtaken by them and coerced into one last payday heist.

There is an episodic quality to the narrative, which was scripted and directed by Michael Cimino (who had previously impressed Eastwood with a written draft of Magnum Force and would go on to win an Academy Award for The Deer Hunter). Each new plot wrinkle has a distinct flavor, ranging from comedy to thriller and back down to drama, culminating in a climactic heist with irrevocable complications. At first viewing, these shifts in tone almost seem disjointed and unfocused, and I’ll admit I walked away from that initial viewing somewhat unimpressed.

But a bit of reflection, particularly on the film’s surprisingly emotional conclusion, produces a kind of retroactive appreciation for all that you’ve seen before it. You thought you’d been watching a disconnected menagerie of moments and sequences with little to no discernable relationship. But it is precisely the relationship between Thunderbolt and Lightfoot that has been the focus of the story: two friends from different walks of life colliding and irrevocably changing each other in ways they couldn’t possibly have predicted. What we’ve seen – the humor, the adventure, the suspense, and the melancholy – have been the rhythms and seasons of all the best friendships in their time.

Eastwood himself delivers a strong performance, balancing toughness and tenderness with ease as the narrative calls for it. Jeff Bridges, however, — in an Oscar nominated performance – is the heart and soul of the story. Lightfoot relates to Thunderbolt as father-figure, older-brother, and best bud all at once as the two of them explore, escape, and enterprise together. Likewise, Thunderbolt takes Lightfoot under his wing and you can easily track a steadily growing affection between them that the two actors capture with effortless verisimilitude. There was apparently some disappointment on Eastwood’s part when the Academy recognized Bridges but not him. However, despite Eastwood’s sensitive and appropriately anchored performance, Bridges is the unquestionable scene-stealer, especially as the film draws towards its inevitably heart-tugging finale.

Thunderbolt and Lightfoot is a strong film, but very of its time. It’s saturated with the sensibilities and thematic concerns of the seventies, and is likely to distance some viewers with its episodic nature. But for those who appreciate films which take their time developing their disparate ideas and trust their audience to go there with them, there are some genuine rewards to be had in the journey. I saw this film in a marathon with three other Eastwood features and after a week’s reflection, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot was the one to which my heart and mind kept returning.


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.

MOVIE REVIEW: You Were Never Really Here

YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE (2018)

1 Hour and 29 Minutes (R)

Lately it seems that Amazon Studios can be counted on for at least one dynamite film each year, and sometimes they give us more. In 2016 it was The Handmaiden, Manchester By The Sea and Academy Award winner The Salesman, and last year the studio gave us two stellar entries in The Lost City of Z and The Big Sick.

Amazon’s latest is this thriller film written and directed by Lynne Ramsay, and based on the book of the same name by Jonathan Ames, which has already won Best Screenplay and Best Actor during its premier at the 70th Cannes Film Festival. The story centers on Joe (Joaquin Phoenix), a military veteran and former FBI agent suffering from some massive post-traumatic stress disorder, who now spends his days caring for his elderly and rescuing young girls from the sex trafficking industry. Unsurprisingly, his life is devoid of much joy, and much of his time is spent lost in thoughts, flashing back to distressing moments from his past that have left him borderline suicidal. The plot of You Were Never Really Here is relatively straight-forward. Joe is hired to find Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), the missing daughter of Senator Albert Votto (Alex Manatte). During this task he uncovers a conspiracy and as vigilantes are want to do, seeks out to render justice for all of the wrongs committed.

The film is very much an art house picture. It’s stylized in a way that can be both mesmerizingly beautiful and also hard to follow. Some of Joe’s flashbacks happen in ways that present a possible surrealistic nature, leaving the viewer unsure of exactly what this man’s past is. There are hints and clues, of course, and this quality is intriguing enough to encourage multiple viewings. Jonny Greenwood’s score is mostly incredible, though at times it is a bit distracting, and overall merges well with the sound mixing to create a rising tension throughout the film. The action is built up to slowly, and then occurs in visceral bursts of brutality that highlight the likely reasons for Joe’s distress and the awfulness of the world he tries to free people from. For a film that won Best Screenplay, You Were Never Really Here is incredibly spare narratively and its dialogue is extremely limited. Editing is also very tight, which provides a means to propel the film forward quickly but also leaves some question marks and lack of detail.

Phoenix’s performance as Joe is incredible. His ability to emote the traumatic state of this man is nothing short of masterful. He is a teddy bear at times, and at others a grizzly. Though it is brief, the relationship he develops with Nina is a powerful one and presents the two characters with a chance to consider whether they could play a missing role in each other’s lives.

VERDICT

You Were Never Really Here examines suffering in a moody, grungy, and violent manner. It is an undeniably beautiful artistic endeavor and shows Lynne Ramsay’s technical mastery of her craft. This isn’t a fun film to watch, by any means, but it is one that will burrow its way deep inside your conscience and have you wrestling with its images long after viewing them. You may come away thinking the film is nihilistic to a fault, and because of the nature of the filmmaking this isn’t a movie for everyone. But if you’re open to cinema as an art form and not just looking to be entertained, You Were Never Really Here is definitely one to see.

Rating:


Aaron White is a Seattle-based film critic and co-creator/co-host of the Feelin’ Film Podcast. He is also a member of the Seattle Film Critics Society. He writes reviews with a focus on how his expectations influenced his experience. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter to be notified when new content is posted.

The Evolution of Eastwood: MAGNUM FORCE

MAGNUM FORCE (1973)

“I hate the —— system! But until someone comes along with changes that make sense, I’ll stick with it.” – Harry Callahan

It was barely two years after Dirty Harry that Eastwood would strap on the signature .44 Magnum once again as Harry Callahan in Magnum Force. The results can’t help but be measured up against the original, in both positive and negative ways.

Picking up sometime shortly after the events of Dirty Harry (a fact only identifiable by a single reference from Harry about his last partner), Harry Callahan (Eastwood) has been relegated to stakeout detail by the stubborn and irritable Lt. Briggs (Hal Holbrook). However, someone in the city is taking justice into their own hands by murdering accused criminals who escaped the system through wealth or technicalities. When the evidence begins to point towards a group of vigilantes on the police force, Harry determines to uncover the truth and bring them to justice himself.

The film was largely an extension of unused material from the first film and a response to some of the criticisms and controversy that film generated. Eastwood wanted to make it clear that Callahan’s character was not a lawless vigilante, so building upon an idea first introduced by Terence Malick into his version of the Dirty Harry script, a script was commissioned by future director John Milius, with eventual rewrites by Michael Cimino. Eastwood was offered the director’s chair, but declined, which was a puzzling choice given what would become on-set tensions between he and Ted Post, someone who had directed Eastwood multiple times on Rawhide and had helmed the solid western Hang ‘Em High.

The final film caused considerable tension among its creators regarding the finished product. Writer John Milius all but disavowed it, citing the changes to the final act and the heightened violence from his original drafts as veritably ruining his original intentions for the story. In addition, director Ted Post cited multiple conflicts with Eastwood, who he claimed was frequently disputing who was truly in charge on set. Post accused Eastwood of exerting ego and leveraging control on set rather than allowing him to do his job. When the two of them had last collaborated, Eastwood’s star was only just rising in America and his directorial confidence didn’t exist yet. Although Eastwood himself had actively turned down the director’s duties for Magnum Force, it would appear that letting go of the role was harder than initially expected. Post and Eastwood would never work together again.

When viewed on its own merits, Magnum Force is a perfectly entertaining police thriller. The performances, particularly by Eastwood and Holbrook are strong as well as a solid showing by Felton Perry as Eastwood’s new partner. It also features a who’s-who of sorts for soon-to-be stars of the 70s including David Soul, Tim Matheson, and Robert Urich. It also effectively highlights Harry Callahan’s skills as a detective, something the original film didn’t emphasize as much as his boldness or attitude. In direct contrast to the vigilantism of which Callahan’s character was accused in the original, there is a deliberate and occasionally heavy-handed emphasis in this film to show that Callahan IS a part of the system and has no tolerance for predatory vigilantism (I’ll leave it to others to determine the level – if any – of hypocrisy at play in these assertions).

What’s sadly missing, unfortunately, are the strong senses of style and suspense that Dirty Harry had in spades. Magnum Force, for all its narrative merits, feels very paint-by-numbers stylistically. This isn’t wholly unexpected when considering that the bulk of Post’s directorial work had previously been for television, where a somewhat formulaic template might be seen as a necessity of continuity. The film’s major reveals will largely be guessed long before they are revealed, making their ultimate result feeling rather inevitable as well, which undermines the suspense factor.

There would be three more sequels in the Harry Callahan world, all of which would suffer from the common sequel problems. But as far as sequels go, Magnum Force isn’t bad. Eastwood even later cited it as his favorite entry in the franchise (which is interesting given that Eastwood eventually directed one of them). If you’re hoping to experience the same level of fascination and compelling storytelling that Dirty Harry brought, you’ll likely be at least slightly disappointed, but if you’re feelin’ lucky… give it a shot.


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.

MOVIE REVIEW: The Endless

THE ENDLESS (2018)

1 Hour and 51 Minutes (Not Rated)

Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson – who serve as directors, writer, cinematographer, and stars –  of The Endless, seem like the kind of guys you would see sitting at a bar debating deep science fiction concepts over a beer. Much like Shane Carruth, these guys are incredibly smart and talented, but dedicated to telling their stories in a particular way (one that would definitely not go over well in the big studio world). Their last effort, Spring, was a romance horror mash-up that was thoroughly thought-provoking and at all times beautiful. In that film they employed great restraint in keeping the horror elements just on the periphery of the sci-fi rom-com, and in The Endless they have once again used that skill to great effect.

The Endless is the story of two brothers, Justin and Aaron Smith (Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead) who grew up in a “UFO Death Cult” but escaped in what seems to be their late teen years. Ten years later, Aaron receives a taped goodbye message from their cultist family and it triggers his already strong PTSD and conflicted feelings about Justin leading them to escape. After much debate, Justin reluctantly agrees to return to the cult for a visit, and that’s when things start getting really weird.

It’s impossible to say much about The Endless‘ story without spoiling a wonderful experience. When the brothers do arrive at Camp Arcadia (clearly deriving its name from the utopian symbol of pastoral simplicity), they find cult leader Hal (Tate Ellington) and the rest of the members to look almost exactly as they had when the brothers left 10 years prior. This strange phenomena is the least of the odd occurrences that begin to take place, but begins to shape the brothers’ diverging reactions to what is going on. Aaron is open to hearing what Hal has to say and approaches the visit from a place of faith and trust. Justin, on the contrary, is extremely cynical and full of doubt, constantly trying to rationalize the unexplained things they see and hear. The film progresses in a way that is increasingly trippy and reminiscent of Lost. The horror elements callback to the Cthulu mythos and cultists worshiping the Elder Gods. Where Benson and Moorhead succeed in creating something unique, though, is that aforementioned restraint. The camera tricks, the cinematography, and the score do all the heavy lifting. Instead of seeing monsters, it’s what we don’t see that has us on edge. And the general likability of the cult presents a scenario where we’re not even always sure what out come to root for.

Despite the high concept sci-fi horror of the story, at its heart is a tale of brotherhood. Two men struggling to cope with what life has dealt them, learning to forgive and trust, and ultimately having to choose a reality that is best for them. Justin and Aaron not only do a fantastic work with the direction, script, and technical elements, but their acting is engaging and fully believable. Their a quiet vulnerability in their interactions that likely is the result of years of close friendship and they carry the film’s emotional weight well.

As is often the case with high concept films, explanations can tend to derail some of the more mysterious portions of a story. There is definitely a period in the middle of the film where some exposition feels a little bit too long and convoluted, making for a slightly longer than necessary runtime and an unfortunate dip in the suspense. Still, that doesn’t derail the enjoyment and fascination of watching The Endless play out at all, and it’s evident that Benson and Moorhead have a masterpiece lurking within them just waiting to come out.

VERDICT

The Endless opens with this quote from author H.P. Lovecraft: “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is the fear of the Unknown.” Benson and Moorhead capture this sense of fear generated from the unknown perfectly. The creepy cult and strange happening around Camp Arcadia are a unique backdrop to explore both their big sci-fi ideas and more grounded story of brotherhood. The Endless is unlike other movies being made, and though it’s not quite the masterpiece Benson and Moorhead clearly have in themthe passion that went into this unique and intriguing film shows. It absolutely should not be missed and with so much to unpack it will no doubt be even richer with subsequent viewings.

Rating:


Aaron White is a Seattle-based film critic and co-creator/co-host of the Feelin’ Film Podcast. He is also a member of the Seattle Film Critics Society. He writes reviews with a focus on how his expectations influenced his experience. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter to be notified when new content is posted.

The Evolution of Eastwood: BREEZY

BREEZY (1973)

“Breezy, there’s no us. There never could be. Did you really think we could happen into something?” – Frank Harmon
“I thought we already had happened.” – Breezy

Eastwood’s third directorial effort is one of the most atypical for anything in his filmography yet. It was so utterly unlike anything his fans had ever seen from him as to be almost alienating. And while it isn’t perfect, it’s a sensitive and often lovely romance.

Frank Harmon (played by William Holden) is a lonely man staring down the autumn of his life following a bitter divorce. He isolates himself in his work and in the occasional one-night stand. But when a 19-year-old free spirit named “Breezy” (played by Kay Lenz) stumbles into his world, he finds himself opening up to possibilities he’d believed were long behind him. The transitions are not wholly smooth, and his own internal barriers are firmly entrenched, but the pair of them begin a romance flavored with spontaneity, laughter, and the melancholy that can only come with love’s inevitable uncertainty.

Eastwood was approached with the script for Breezy (written by Jo Heims, who wrote Play Misty for Me) with an idea that he might portray Frank Harmon. While he considered himself too young for the role, he felt that he understood and related enough to the story to be able to do justice by it as director. At first glance, the story and tone of the film appears completely unusual given Eastwood’s collection of action thrillers and westerns on which his fame had been built. But when considering the types of characters that he had portrayed already, things begin to appear much more synchronous.

The characters that most frequently populate Eastwood’s filmography (at least through the 60s and early 70s) are primarily lonely and isolated men. The “man with no name”, “Dirty” Harry Callahan, and even the wanderers of High Plains Drifter and Two Mules for Sister Sara are all men who prefer solitude and play by a set of rules which naturally alienate them to the larger community of the world in which they reside. While occasionally these characters have found love or even peace (in Paint Your Wagon or Play Misty for Me) they’re never truly free of the melancholic loneliness which hangs over them like a storm cloud (and indeed Breezy’s nickname for Harmon in the film is “Black Cloud”).

It isn’t difficult to recognize a pattern between those individuals and the character of Frank Harmon. William Holden, synonymous with romances stretching back to the 40s, delivers a nuanced and complex performance. Eastwood’s instincts were likely on point to recognize that he was not yet in a position to portray Harmon because even in his strongest performances, he has yet to tap into the deep and abiding sadness that Holden brings to the role, which is an essential element to making the romance in Breezy believable. Kay Lenz is appropriately naïve and sweet, not to mention lovely, to convincingly enchant both the audience and Frank Harmon. She balances fragility and strength almost effortlessly, showing the early sparks of what would fuel an Emmy-winning career.

While the age difference between the two of them (Harmon is in his 50s while romancing a 19-year-old) is alarming and at times slightly uncomfortable, it is never unbelievable, thanks in large part to the sensitive tone and the strong performances. The film skirts right up to the edge of wearing out its welcome, but always redirects and reconnects the audience just in time with a well-written or powerfully performed scene.

Without the deeply rooted melancholy Holden brings to his performance, the stakes for the romance between he and Lenz might have felt innocuous, even boring. But the romance, as it is instead, is achingly sad and ultimately rather touching. We can feel the longing lying dormant in Harmon to rekindle what he feels he’s left behind him. You can see that he’s tried before with others and has never had the courage to pursue it to fruition, nor has he met someone as tenacious as the free-spirited Breezy. The film even ends on a note indicating that maybe he’s still not quite ready, but perhaps he’s willing to try.

This was Eastwood’s first attempt to helm a straight-forward story in which there are no gimmicks or surprises, just pure character and drama. The film has little to offer the casual Eastwood fan, as there is literally no suspense or action, but to the fan of bittersweet, melancholic romance, Breezy is well worth a look.


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: HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER

HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER (1973)

“It’s what people know about themselves inside that makes them afraid.” – The Stranger

It’s highly appropriate – almost poetic – that Eastwood’s second directorial feature would be a western. What is even more bold and provocative is for it to have been High Plains Drifter, a brutally bleak and gritty story that is grim, violent, offensive, and – perhaps literally – haunted. It’s also deeply compelling and remarkably effective.

The film opens with a horizon shrouded in a blurry heat. Suddenly, not so much emerging as fading into view, a single rider makes his way into the town of Lago, with every public townsperson standing in suspicious awe as he rides through. Within minutes of his arrival, he has killed three men and raped a woman in broad daylight. The next day, this same stranger is commissioned out of desperation to protect the town from the impending threat of three former residents who will soon be released from prison and make their way back to town to enact revenge on those who imprisoned them. He accepts the offer and begins to make every use of his newfound power, rattling every complacent and corrupt citizen’s routine existence into chaos. By the time the three villains do arrive, a deeper and darker purpose behind the stranger’s presence in the town begins to fully reveal itself.

Eastwood returns to his old familiar character, this time a literal “man with no name” as his identity in the film is never confirmed (his character is even credited as “The Stranger”). His performance here is as volcanic as it has ever been, and it is surrounded by a host of equally compelling performances under Eastwood’s strikingly assured directorial hand. The script was fashioned by Oscar-winning screenwriter Ernest Tidymen from a 9-page treatment pitch. It is saturated in mystery and soaked in dread: a quality mirrored in the film’s shadowy visual aesthetic and ethereal musical score. Indeed, the overall tone of the film and the feelings behind some of its individual moments are far more akin to ghost stories than to western legends.

It is difficult to discuss this film, filled as it is with such unflinching ugliness, as a recommendation. But it is also difficult not to recommend a film so confident and coherent in its vision, and so utterly effective in its impact. It should be clarified that there are no real “good guys” in this film. As a textbook example of the revisionist western, wherein good guys and bad guys blend together as shades of grey, this film makes no pretense about its foggy moral complexity and its disturbing view of human nature. Keep in mind something that I mentioned earlier: that the supposed “hero” of our story, within the first fifteen minutes of the film, commits a blatant act of sexual assault. Roy Rogers, this ain’t.

Yet, the film is also surprisingly vocal about matters of conscience, infusing scattered observations about hypocrisy and injustice into its cinematic dna. The film seems to be making sweeping statements of morality such as bystanders who do nothing are never “innocent” or that you can never fully bury your transgressions in the sand. But it does so without allowing the audience the reprieve of a saintly hero. Instead, we get almost the living embodiment of willful vengeance. The premise could be seen as analogous to, “what if a day of reckoning came to certain members of a corrupt society, but instead of a righteous avenging angel who brought justice, it was the Devil himself?” (an analogy further substantiated by the fact that in the film’s final third, The Stranger paints the town blood red and paints the word “Hell” on the entrance sign). Vengeance is at the very core of the film, although on whom and why is not revealed until nearly the film’s final act. But there are hints speckled throughout the narrative that this stranger did not arrive by accident and that every inhabitant’s desperate attempts to control their own fates have merely been the movements of pawns orchestrated by a sinister puppet master.

Not everyone will be on board for this level of moral ambiguity, and rightfully so (John Wayne himself penned a tasteful but derisive letter criticizing the film’s philosophy of humanity and its perspective on the western era of history). But those who can quickly acclimate to this bleak and unyielding revenge tale will likely find themselves highly rewarded, as the film is so effective it almost dares you to try to dismiss it.

As a sophomore effort by Eastwood as a director, the achievement is astounding. He has channeled the muses of both Sergio Leone and Don Siegel, whose works so clearly informed his emergence as a performer, blending both their penchant for grandeur with their haunting storytelling sensibilities. Their names can briefly be seen on the gravestones in the town into which Eastwood’s stranger rides, but it’s only two of many implied ghosts that haunt the tale of the High Plains Drifter. This is a disturbing and provocative film, not to mention powerful, and while its content is likely to distance more than a few audience members, its impact is undeniable.


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: JOE KIDD

JOE KIDD (1972)

“You get to a church right now and you pray I don’t see you again before this thing is done.” – Frank Harlan

Eastwood returns to the genre that made him a star after a 4-film gap, and this time, the pedigree of talent is significant. Unfortunately, we can’t say the same about the film.

The script for Joe Kidd, penned by the legendary Elmore Leonard, was given to Eastwood as a star vehicle for him. Cementing the pedigree behind the film’s production was the addition of not only Eastwood as the titular star, but Robert Duvall as a villainous landowner and director John Sturges, who had helmed such acclaimed classics as The Great Escape and The Magnificent Seven.

Set in the early 1900s, the film centers around a former bounty hunter named Joe Kidd (Eastwood) who is reluctantly drawn into a land dispute between the rebellious Luis Chama (played by John Saxon) and the greedy land-peddler Frank Harlan (Robert Duvall). Loyalties are tested and sides are flipped as the contest develops, culminating in Kidd taking matters into his own hands to settle the conflict for good.

On a surface level, there’s a lot to appreciate about Joe Kidd. There is a simple, direct narrative with a crisp and steady pace. The performances are unanimously strong (which is to be expected given the interplay of Eastwood and Duvall). Overall, the film is entertaining enough, particularly for fans of standard western genre fare. The problem is that it’s largely unremarkable, which – when the pedigree of its production is this high – is no small detriment to the film’s commendation. It’s also relatively short for most of Eastwood’s catalogue, clocking in at a mere 87 minutes, which could be a compliment to its economy of storytelling if its individual elements were more compelling.

Eastwood as a performer seems a bit pedestrian this time around, lacking either the stony subtlety of the “man with no name” or the fiery passion he brought to previous westerns like Hang ‘Em High or Two Mules for Sister Sara. On-set information indicates that he was struggling with several health complications, which may have contributed to a lackluster performance, and even at his worst he delivers the appropriate gravity and charisma to be consistently watchable. Duvall is compelling, as always, but relatively under-used, with the bulk of his dramatic moments peppered through his grand introduction to the story. The characters are rather painfully underdeveloped, with stereotypical behaviors and confusing shifts in motivation.

But Joe Kidd is still pretty good. At least, it’s good enough for a Saturday afternoon diversion if you’re a fan of westerns and haven’t checked it out yet. There are some elements to enjoy and certain moments that are undeniably entertaining (like the rather outrageous climactic moment involving a train barreling through a saloon). But the film is ultimately very benign, and given the talent driving its creation, it could – and probably should – have been excellent.


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.