Current films are full of regrets and second chances, none more so than the recent work of Clint Eastwood. In the Line of Fire, which opened last month, has him playing an American Secret Service man haunted by his failure to protect John Kennedy on the day everyone remembers. Now another assassin, John Malkovich no less, is stalking another President: a risk for the incumbent but a chance of redemption for our hero. The regrets on the subject of violence are particularly murky. 'Penance' was the word Eastwood used in a Rolling Stone interview in relation to Unforgiven, his last film as star and director and one which brought him his first Oscar and a new respectability in the movie world. In conversation Eastwood made the fim sound more like a prayer then a Western. It was as if he was apologising on the screen for all his old movie misdeeds; and the film itself has at its core a long, illustrated sermon on the pain and horror of violent death. Penance here seems to mean moral confusion rather than anything like steady contrition. Unforgiven is a good movie because it doesn't shirk the contradictions it raises, indeed it displays them with stately elegance; not a great movie because the contradictions, beneath the elegance, are a sprawling mess, a mirror of the muddle of our thoughts about violence.
LRB 9 September 1993 | PDF Download