However, beneath this seeming familiarity, even sentimentality, there's a surprising and (by American standards) very stark note that sounds throughout the stories -- a note of pessimism, bleak and almost unrelieved. That may explain why Unforgiven is often labelled an existential western, although it's anything but. There, and in the other two films, the principals are essentially defined by a past that's always denied to existential heroes (denied, for example, to The Man With No Name). Instead, the past weighs down all these characters, as heavily and inexorably as in a Faulkner novel. It saturates their present, it circumscribes their future, it's a dark destiny they can't escape. In the land that gave birth to the pursuit of happiness and the dream of self-reinvention, how un-American is that?
So the gunslinger in Unforgiven is haunted by the death of his wife and his once-murderous ways; the three men in Mystic River by a horrific act of molestation that scarred their childhood; and the aged trainer in Million Dollar Baby by his mishandling of a fighter, and by his estrangement from a beloved daughter.
As economical behind the lens as in front, Eastwood is remarkably adroit at sketching in this looming shadow of the past. A quick opening crawl does the job in Unforgiven, a glimpse of a returned letter serves the same purpose in Baby. Most impressive, though, is his handling of that searing first sequence in Mystic River, a taut yet seemingly unhurried compression of images that plants the bad seed for everything that follows. Don't think for a moment, though, that Eastwood is a magician with a camera (just compare his pedestrian boxing-ring action with Scorsese's flash-and-dash in Raging Bull). He tends to avoid close-ups, and employs a lot of medium shots, sliding his actors into the frame and letting them strut their stuff. But at his best -- again, watch Mystic River -- his style has a cleanness, a precision and a purpose that can feel poetic.
Although he's not a writer, the dialogue in his commissioned scripts looks to find a similar poetry in plain American vernacular, in the blunt speech of regular folk in weathered settings --a muddy town in the vanishing Old West, a ramshackle neighbourhood in inner-city Boston, a ratty gym somewhere in L.A. Typical of that speech is a line from an earlier film, A Perfect World, where an escaped convict says simply of himself, "I ain't a good man -- I'm not the worst either."
Actually, that same description could easily apply to each of the main characters in these three movies. They're all good, bad and a bit ugly too, drifting from the status of victim to villain and back again, prisoners of a fate they may or may not deserve. Then again, as that old gunslinger put it at the point of his rifle, "Deserve's got nothin' to do with it."
Is there salvation in Eastwood's realm, or at least consolation? Certainly not from religion -- it's openly jeered at in Million Dollar Baby and appears only as pathetic counterpoint in Mystic River, where he inter-cuts between the first communion of one innocent girl and the brutal death of another. Nor can protection be found behind the veneer of irony. Eastwood lacks irony, although not humour -- mainly the sly brand, often self-mocking, yet hardly redeeming.
Over all, it seems extraordinary that, in his most memorable works, this pop icon repeatedly paints a world devoid of pop comforts, a violent and unforgiving world where justice is never unalloyed, where romantic love is always elusive and where free will chafes in the shackles of the past. And yet he still finds an audience and he even receives Oscars -- that's quite a sales job.
If there's a sanctuary to be found in his imperfect world, it's hinted at by that runaway con when he muses, "A family man is about the best thing a man can hope to be." The lure of family, real or ersatz, is the shared goal of everyone in this movie trio. Alas, it invariably proves to be a bumpy road -- both getting there and staying there. No bitching, however. As embodied in all his anti-heroes, the Eastwood universe is definitely a whining-free zone. Indeed, at the end of Million Dollar Baby, his uncomplaining trainer is reduced to holing up in a lonely diner on some dusty blacktop, taking what solace he can from the sweet delights of lemon-meringue pie.
Oh, and one other solace too. Damned if the old trainer, if Clint Eastwood himself, hasn't immersed his laconic nature deep in the flowing Irish verse of William Butler Yeats, burrowing right down into "the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart." Way back in the Rowdy Yates days of Rawhide, who could possibly have predicted that? From Yates to Yeats -- 74 years and counting, and standing, this cowboy, this inside outlaw, has taken us on a helluva ride.