House Logo
Explore categories +

Kingdom of the Blind: Clint Eastwood and Revenge, Pt. 1: “Hell Rode With Him”

Comments Comments (0)

And thine eye shall not pity; but life shall go for life, eye for eye, hand for hand, foot for foot.—Deuteronomy 19:21

Clint Eastwood’s long career as both actor and director is a homestead built atop a graveyard. From his breakthrough role as The Man With No Name in Sergio Leone’s mid-’60s “Dollars” trilogy through the Dirty Harry series, High Plains Drifter (1972), Unforgiven (1992), Mystic River (2003), and Gran Torino (2008), many of his best-known films follow traumatized people on missions of revenge. Some treat revenge lightly, ritualistically—as a mere ingredient, something one expects to see in westerns and thrillers, Eastwood’s signature genres. Others treat it more seriously—as a response to evil that creates more evil; as an extralegal means of seeking justice that society botched or denied; as the result of unseen cosmic forces passing judgment on humankind; as a traumatized person’s desperate attempt to regain authority over a life that’s spun out of control; and as metaphysical narcotic—an activity that momentarily lets emotionally numb, spiritually dead people feel alive.

All Eastwood films that deal with vengeance are torn between two impulses: to show that, in the words of Mahatma Gandhi, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind”; and to feed the nonrational, lurid, savage craving for revenge—a craving experienced by both the wronged character who seeks it and the moviegoer who lives vicariously through the avenger.

Matt Zoller Seitz is the founder of The House Next Door. To watch more of his video essays, visit Moving Image Source and The L Magazine. To read a full transcript of the video’s text, click here.