As a director, Clint Eastwood has always been a little hit-and-miss. I supposed you could say this about almost any creative talent (unless you're talking about someone with a tiny body of work), but it seems especially true of The Quiet One. For every interesting film like THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES or MYSTIC RIVER you can find a couple forgettable thrillers like BLOOD WORK or dismissible would-be prestige dramas like INVICTUS. This imbalance owes something, I suspect, to a certain reflexive shallowness in Eastwood's thinking. Even in some of his successes a tendency toward oversimplification hampers the result (the most glaring example of this, for me, are the white trash caricatures who make up Hilary Swank's family in MILLION-DOLLAR BABY).
Yet when Eastwood gets it right--which he has done again and again over the course of a forty-plus year directing career--he achieves a kind of graceful simplicity.
The best work of his career were three films he released back to back in the early nineties: UNFORGIVEN, A PERFECT WORLD, and THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY. This trio of films show him working with talented collaborators on smart material, but they also show him in total control of his craft.
UNFORGIVEN (1992) is the best known of the three, a film that most people consider Eastwood's single finest work. A Western about a haunted ex-gunslinger who signs up to do a couple of murders-by-contract for a group of prostitutes, UNFORGIVEN cast a long shadow over the genre. The film feels every bit like a final statement on the Western mythology that Hollywood helped to create and popularize throughout the 20th century. To have Eastwood--a living icon of that mythology--deconstruct it and, in a sense, disavow it, in some ways closed the book on the Western. This is not to say that there haven't been Westerns since UNFORGIVEN, but even the good ones like Kevin Costner's OPEN RANGE and the Coen Brothers' TRUE GRIT are forced to live in its shadow, forced to feel a little redundant. (Eastwood himself declared that the film would be his last Western. He was, quite literally, hanging up his spurs. And he hasn't made a Western since.)
His next film was an underrated collaboration with Costner, 1993's A PERFECT WORLD. Eastwood plays a legendary Texas lawman in pursuit of escaped convict Costner, who is on run with a kidnapped child (TJ Lowther). When the film was released, Costner was at the peak of his fame (remember when Kevin Costner was the biggest movie star in the world?) and the press hyped the epic confrontation between two generations of laconic leading men...only to revolt when the actual film turned out to be a quiet character study shrouded in loss and regret. I guess that reaction was inevitable because A PERFECT WORLD may well be the most melancholy film Eastwood has ever made. In many ways it is an even deeper repudiation of the macho ethos than UNFORGIVEN. Costner's convict is a fractured anti-hero, doomed by childhood trauma, while Eastwood's famous lawman is revealed to be a man haunted by his mistakes--mistakes, it should be added, of the self-assured he-man sort that we rarely see questioned onscreen. Though it has been long overlooked in favor of some Eastwood's financial and critical hits, A PERFECT WORLD is a triumph and one of his very best films. (If you haven't seen it in a while, or if you've never seen it all, it will also remind you of what an incredibly effective actor Kevin Costner can be in the right role.)
Eastwood dismantled his own screen persona in his next film, THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY. The film was a curiosity in its day, a prestigious adaptation of a widely successful bestseller that was almost universally considered a horrible book. Though the film was a big hit, in some ways it never really received the attention that it deserved, considering it was really nothing short of a masterpiece. If nothing else, it's a perfect example of how approach and nuance affect material. The story of a three day affair between an Iowa housewife and a traveling photographer could be the basis of a dirty joke or a cornball romance, but Eastwood, working with an effervescent Meryl Streep, takes that same material and creates a bittersweet mediation on sex, family, regret, and, yes, true love. Those moviegoers used to seeing Eastwood as a masculine icon (which is to say, really, all moviegoers) are often a little shocked to see The Quiet One playing a smooth-talking free-spirit--though people who know him have said that the character is in some ways the one closest to the real man.
This role doesn't come as any surprise, however, to anyone who sees THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY as the third part of a triptych of films. There is a consistent style and perspective here, a unfying authorial voice concerned with notions of masculinity and regret, as well as an evolving sense of the possibilities for human connection.