Each Monday, I continue to share Western movie reviews as I go through the process of finishing post and releasing my 12 Westerns in 12 Months during 2020. I am watching these films not from an audience perspective but as a filmmaker, as a student of the genre.
Week 111: The Outlaw Josey Wales
Though I am in the minority of Western fans, I do not think Outlaw Josey Wales is that good of a movie. And this isn’t my first watch. It’s my third attempt to like this film after seeing it once as a kid, a second time a couple years ago while preparing for the 12 Westerns, and now for a final revisit to see what I might have been missing. Here are the two main reasons I don’t like the film:
1. Eastwood’s hero is too invincible. As I assess the progression of Clint’s career (more on this in a bit), this is actually a trend in his early work. His protagonists rarely get wounded or if they do, it’s in the very beginning after which they become superheroes. The same can be said about Hang ‘Em High (which he produced but did not direct) and High Plains Drifter. What this creates is a comic book like hero who kills bad guys without any real competition. Do we really feel danger that Josey might not win these battles? I certainly didn’t. There’s no suspense! Howard Hawks once said that “There’s only action if there is danger.” Well, there’s no danger here… Take by contrast a film like Die Hard where our hero is wounded. Actually, he’s hurt several times and ends the movie as a bloody mess. There’s the feeling that he might not make it. The filmmakers fool the audience for a hot minute and that’s what making a good action movie or Western is all about, creating that sense of danger. Even the most recent Mission Impossible makes us believe that superhuman Tom Cruise might fail. But Eastwood is the one who fails in these early movies by not realizing the value of showing weakness in his characters mid-way through the pictures. Yes, I know Josey is wounded at the end but by then it just doesn’t matter and even after that gunshot, he’s still a superhero. Clint doesn’t start to get this in his work until Unforgiven when he successfully shows the hero broken by the bad guys before his triumphant and violent return.
2. Eastwood’s character lacks an internal struggle. The first 15 or so minutes of Josey Wales (which are the best in the film) set up a tortured hero who must come to terms with his loss and hate for the Yankees who killed his family. However, at this point in Eastwood’s career, he just doesn’t know how to create a complex, emotional character. I don’t feel his pain throughout most of the picture and therefore, the journey to redemption or at least completion of his task is hollow. I think Eastwood really started to understand emotional complexity in the 80s. You can start to see a change with his performances in films starting with Tightrope, evolving with Heartbreak Ridge and White Hunter, Black Heart, and then fulfilling its promise with Unforgiven. It’s almost like he was a kid making movies in the 70s. He had no emotional maturity in the roles and therefore Josey Wales is a shallow character. I’d love to see Clint remake this with someone like Josh Brolin or Jeremy Renner in the role, two actors who bring an enormous amount of internal weight to each performance. As is, I don’t think the film and Eastwood’s character live up to their potential.
There are certainly good parts to The Outlaw Josey Wales. The action is well-staged, the side characters can be amusing, and the ending has a nice feeling to it. My favorite section involves the Comancheros but again, this is ruined with the star’s macho-ism. Alas, most Western fans love this film but I’ve tried three times and just can’t.
Watched on Netflix.