In his sycophantic Clint Eastwood: A Biography, Richard Schickel characterizes the star and director as working in “the modern jazz manner,” evincing “a powerful desire—almost amounting to a morality—not to woo the audience … a profound desire not to make what he does look costly to him, emotionally or intellectually.” Seen in the context of hyped-up, post-MTV cop films, director Eastwood’s cool, contained, one-thing-after-another style can be refreshing, and it meshes with actor Eastwood’s faintly ironic reticence. But the approach doesn’t feel like “a morality” to me, it feels like a limitation, a manly reluctance to open himself up, a fear of commitment. And it’s at the heart, so to speak, of what’s wrong with the tepid thriller Blood Work (Warner Bros.), in which Eastwood plays Terry McCaleb, an ex-FBI profiler enlisted to track down the killer of the woman whose ticker, following a recent transplant, he now bears. In an early scene, his cardiologist (Angelica Huston) expresses dismay that Terry would accept a case that might bring stress, a spike in temperature, and organ rejection; and Eastwood directs as if he’s following doctor’s orders, as if he doesn’t want to push himself too hard. Without that fever, the sense that this is costing Eastwood something as both filmmaker and star, what’s left is a wan and impersonal whodunnit—a movie that never gets into your blood.
It’s especially disappointing because the 1998 novel, by Michael Connelly, pulls off that outlandish premise by virtue of its feverish intensity. Connelly is one of those post-Chandler hardboiled writers (the best include Lawrence Block in his Matt Scudder series, George P. Pelecanos, and Dennis Lehane) whose prose affect stoicism but have a knack for screwing with your head. He has the ability to evoke an almost sickening sense of evil, so that you share the protagonist’s compulsion to plow through endless minutiae—anything to get to the core of this malignant virus and violently purge it. (You stay up all night to finish these books.) His climaxes tend to be convoluted—rarely as cathartic as the material warrants—but as a former Los AngelesTimes crime reporter he has an eye for resonant detail and the snazziest way with an autopsy this side of Thomas Harris, the king of forensic fetishism. The more McCaleb digs into the seemingly random convenience-store robbery that led to the woman’s murder, the more complicit—and poisoned—he begins to feel. The evil becomes horrifically organic.
The French are better at procedural thrillers than Americans, who like to (literally) cut to the chase, but I had high hopes for Blood Work: The screenwriter is Brian Helgeland, who caught something of the genre’s heated intricacy (and its unsavoriness) in the script of L.A. Confidential (1997). Helgeland pulls off a structural coup in the movie’s prologue: He shows McCaleb’s first heart attack—which happens before the novel begins—in the course of pursuing a taunting adversary known as the Code Killer. Very cinematic, very economical—and very ham-fisted. Introducing the Code Killer at the outset makes the book’s most chilling revelation a foregone conclusion. And the more Helgeland irons out the narrative—making it more conventionally movieish—the less surprising the story’s zigs and zags. Without all the false starts and dead ends and the obsessive attention to process, the killer and his motives are plain almost from the outset. The audience is two steps ahead, and McCaleb—the legendary whiz-bang serial-killer tracker, the man who stands between us and the deadliest sociopaths on the planet—comes off like a thickie.
At 72, Eastwood is a quarter-century older than Connelly’s McCaleb, but the part is a good one for him. Although he still has his Dirty Harry leanness, his voice is a rasp, which gives his delivery more urgency (it’s a labor to get the words out); the hint of a dodder comes across as an appealing hesitancy. When he fingers the scar on his chest, he’s touchingly vulnerable. He lets Paul Rodriguez, as his antagonist on the Los Angeles police, turn into a sputtering cartoon, and he never gets into a rhythm with Jeff Daniels as the weirdly insinuating slacker in the houseboat next to McCaleb’s. But he has terrific scenes opposite two of the movie’s women: the peppery Huston, whose character wants to tear him a new chest-hole; and Tina Lifford, who plays a police detective and gives her lines a mischievous erotic subtext.
In the last part of the movie Eastwood doesn’t rise to the occasion, either as an actor or director. At the moment when Blood Work needs to accelerate and become almost operatic in its feeling, it stays laconic. The revelations carry no emotional weight, and the climax feels predestined. At this point, no one expects Eastwood to imitate Brian De Palma, David Fincher, or Martin Scorsese. But what’s the point of a gimmicky thriller with no razzle-dazzle? Is it a sign of morality when the payoff is a shrug?
It might be that I’ve dwelled too long on a dud like Blood Work. But I’ve spent many a happy beach day with Connelly and Block and Pelecanos and Lehane and lots of other modern male and female mystery writers. And the real mystery is why these novels, which combine so much love of pop culture with so much insight into their respective urban milieus (I didn’t fully understand the racial mix of D.C. until I started reading Pelecanos), haven’t been turned into killer movies. Carl Franklin got Walter Mosley in The Devil in a Blue Dress because he made South Central L.A. a character. But what can we expect from Eastwood’s coming film of Lehane’s tragic Mystic River, or the planned Scudder movie with Harrison Ford traipsing in and out of AA meetings on Manhattan’s Upper West Side? These writers have taken the stuff of pulp and made it personal. The movies are turning it back into pulp.
Set in and around a Wal-Mart-like Texas chain store, The Good Girl (Fox Searchlight) might at first seem reminiscent of those regional liberal-humanist American Playhouse movies that flourished more than a decade ago—except this one, written by Mike White in the deadpan, freakishly insinuating style of his Chuck and Buck, is more liberal-contemptuous. It’s a weird mix. The protagonist, Justine (Jennifer Aniston), stares bored into space behind the make-over counter; she says, in narration, that she feels as if she’s on death row. She comes home to find her husband, Phil (John C. Reilly), and his buck-toothed, big-eared buddy Bubba (Tim Blake Nelson) drunk and stoned and transfixed by cartoons. She wants something better, and she thinks she sees it in 22-year-old Holden (Jake Gyllenhaal), a brooding checkout clerk who clings to his dream of writing books like his hero, J.D. Salinger. “My husband doesn’t get me,” she tells him, and the affair begins.
In outline this is a regional A Doll’s House, but Justine is something of a 15-watt bulb, and Aniston plays the part with her hair pulled back, a prim little smile, and a cutesy/schlumpy walk. Her Salinger is an increasingly unstable nutcase who dreams of writing his Catcher in the Rye and then making like a real J.D. and vanishing. The cretin Bubba turns out to have a vertiginous inner life that revolves around longing for Justine and slavelike worship of Phil. The movie gets funnier and less obvious as it goes along, and Zooey Deschanel is a hoot as a disdainfully bored co-worker who ritually insults the zombie chain-store shoppers—but what is The Good Girl saying, exactly? Is it meant to be a send-up of a regional independent feminist picture? A testament to male stupidity and female mendacity? Whatever it is, it makes the perpetuation of the species seem a dubious triumph.