I watched Unforgiven a couple days after seeing Gran Torino, and there was one thing that stuck out for me: Clint Eastwood’s voice. In Unforgiven it’s pretty much a normal speaking voice, although he whispers most of his lines. In Gran Torino it’s a throwback to the character he played in Heartbreak Ridge, where every single line is spoken through gritted teeth with a sandpaper voice box. The only difference, I think, is that then Eastwood was affecting the voice to fit the character of Gunny Highway, and now he’s just so old and mean that that’s what he sounds like.
This movie, by all rights, should have been direct to DVD. That’s just a commentary on the quality of the script, though not necessarily the dialog. We’ve seen this movie before, and it starred Charles Bronson and was called Death Wish III. The difference, aside from the gratuitous use of Marina Sirtis’s boobs (and, you know, a grenade launcher) in the latter, is that this isn’t a comic-book tough guy movie. This movie has a grounding in reality. There are no unbelievable moments of superhuman agility or strength; when characters fall down, they have a hard time getting back up, when kids get hurt, they cry. And that makes it all the more awesome when Eastwood kicks the crap out of a chubby Hmong gangbanger and you completely buy it because Eastwood, even at 80 years old, is in better shape than that fat kid.
The oil that keeps this machine humming along is Eastwood’s direction. He has such a grasp of timing and purpose. He’s not a flashy director like Spielberg or Scorcese, where they have their signature “look at me!” moves. What he uses instead is a largely static camera, placed carefully, so what happens in the scene is almost stage-like in its presentation. The characters move from left to right and back, and the camera almost never pans. You hardly even realize it’s happening until late in the movie, when he’ll use a single moment of virtuoso camera movement to blow you away. I’m not going to give away the moment here, but the best example of this in his career (in my opinion) was in the last scene of Mystic River. Sean Penn and Kevin Bacon are having their final confrontation, and both of them look up and imagine seeing a 10-year-old Tim Robbins being abducted. You see his worried face looking back at them through the rear window of a Continental as it rolls away, and the scene cuts to a POV shot from the kid’s perspective, with the camera rolling away from Penn and Bacon. It’s one of those moments that just explodes off the screen. I think Ebert sums it up best in his review of Mystic River:
Roger Ebert wrote:In a time of flashy directors who slice and dice their films in a dizzy editing rhythm, it is important to remember that films can look and listen and attentively sympathize with their characters. Directors grow great by subtracting, not adding, and Eastwood does nothing for show, everything for effect.
If there’s a hiccup in the movie, it’s the acting. The supporting cast is wildly uneven, largely because many, if not all, of the ethnic characters are played by “real” people and not true actors. There are some strong supporting roles though; Eastwood’s buddy, a barber, is played well in his few scenes, as are Eastwood’s sons, and the young priest that you see in the trailers. They’re all played by character actors that you’d recognize from movies, TV, or commercials, and they all do a commendable job. The Hmong kid that Eastwood befriends is the strongest actor of the non-professionals. The girl that plays his sister, who seems to have the most dialog of any supporting character in the movie, is less strong. Though really, it’s not so much her fault, as the fault of the screenwriter. Her dialog consists of way too much obvious exposition (“My people were persecuted in Vietnam for supporting the USA!!!”), and she’s not a strong enough actor to make any of it ring true.
All of that is meaningless, however, in the face of the wave of awesome that is Eastwood. I was surprised at how funny this movie is. Eastwood’s deadpan delivery of offhanded and casually vulgar ethnic slurs has a shock value that doesn’t wear off as the movie goes along. He isn’t a one dimensional character, though; part of the strength of the role is in how Eastwood is able to pull off the multifaceted aspect of the character. This isn’t a movie where the gruff old racist realizes the error of his ways and joins the ACLU. He doesn’t change, and his dialog remains the same. What the role shows is that he’s deeper than the caricature; what he says isn’t necessarily what he feels, and while the “gook” count in his lines is off the chart, he’s no racist. He’s an old school, blue collar, ex-Army, Ford line worker from Detroit. And every bit of that rings true.
Overall, this is not the best of Eastwood’s career. Any career that has both the lead role in Unforgiven and the directing credits from Mystic River has a high bar to leap over, and this doesn’t clear it. But there are a hundred directors, and a hundred more actors, that would be praised as geniuses for the work that Eastwood makes look effortless here.