Given the discussion Erik’s post below is likely to stimulate, I thought I’d go back to our archives for an 2004 post about Eastwood as a director, lost in our archive shift but now made available to you, our faithful readers, in a special limited edition lovongly curated by Ridely Scott during a brief hiatus between his 21st and 22nd versions of Blade Runner:
I wrote recently that Sideways was the best reviewed film of the year. I’m not sure if this is true any longer; the reviews from top critics of Million Dollar Baby have been remarkably good. (Sideways still has a slightly higher Metacritic score, but eyeballing the reviews and year-end lists of major critics, Eastwood’s movie seems to have been reviewed even more enthusiastically.) Both A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis, for example, rank it the year’s best film. (In an oddity, Stephen Holden–normally a perfect negative litmus test for my own tastes–has a top ten list I’m in much greater agreement with.)
Now, Million Dollar Baby, which I haven’t yet seen, certainly might be an outstanding film; Eastwood did, after all, direct his best film just last year. Still, I suspect I might fall in with the few dissenters. And the reason for my skepticism is simple: is there a director who gets a freer ride from most good critics than Clint Eastwood? There’s something about his status as a film icon, slow pace, formal immersion in genre conventions, and noir lighting that makes many American critics swoon on contact. (This style is often called “modest,” although it draws attention to itself every bit as much as the more innovative theatricality of a Welles or Scorsese.) Even if you consider Mystic River and Unforgiven the masterpieces they’re often called as opposed to the very good movies I consider them, the idea that he’s anything close to the best American director currently working is laughable nonsense. Consider the record. The two movies I’ve named are my exhaustive list of good Clint Eastwood pictures, with the new one pending. Admittedly, I’ve never seen his highly regarded version of The Horseshit of Robert James Waller, so let’s say that’s three. There are a couple of passable-plus westerns, and a couple of honorable failures (Bird and White Hunter); the kind of mediocre patch almost all directors have. But beyond this, what’s amazing is how many absolutely, irredeemably terrible movies Eastwood has directed. Robert Altman may be the most uneven of America’s living first-rate filmmakers, but I would watch Pret A Porter 100 times before watching Absolute Power–a howlingly awful “thriller” that is among the worst movies I’ve seen in a theatre in the last 15 years–again once. Midnight in the Garden of Good And Evil is only marginally better, and it compensates by being even more soporific. During my second most recent awful stomach flu, I watched some of Blood Work on TBS and thought I was watching a fifth-rate CSI knockoff until a cadaverous looking Eastwood ambled into the picture. Then you’ve got the atrocious Dirty Harry sequel, the atrocious Dirty Harry clone, awful sci-fi, awful Kevin Costner vehicle. I’m sorry, but if that’s the best American director I’m Robert Bresson.
So, while Million Dollar Baby may be great, I’m approaching it strictly on a wait-and-see basis.
I pretty much stand by my earlier analysis. Million Dollar Baby was OK but massively overrated. I haven’t seen the WWII movies, which have a decent rep, so perhaps that merits an upgrade. The Changeling and Invictus belong squarely in the “honorable failure” category. Gran Torino was uneven but much better than it should have been, one of his best. Hereafter was substantially worse than it sounds, which is really saying something — I think I’d rather screen Absolute Power again. J. Edgar was a failure I’m not sure I would call honorable; a badly squandered opportunity. So…I’d continue to say that he’s an interesting director who mixes the occasional real good one along with rather more vaguely watchable but dull prestige pictures and the occasional egregious crime against cinema.
To be fair and balanced, in a rare post where he is largely wrong about something Glenn Kenny explains why he gives Eastwood a pass.