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.