Blood Work

bloodwork_clintanjelicaThe period of Clint Eastwood’s career that began with Unforgiven ten years ago could accurately be called The Autumn Years. A Perfect World, The Bridges of Madison County, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, Absolute Power, True Crime, Space Cowboys — these are all about older men’s concerns: aging, paths not taken, the fragility of life. There certainly hasn’t been a Pink Cadillac or an Every Which Way But Loose in this bunch, not even the one movie (In the Line of Fire) Eastwood starred in but didn’t direct during that period. The brooding continues in Blood Work, probably Eastwood’s most successful and poignant Autumn work since Unforgiven. Who knew that the guy who shot punks and goofed around with chimps in the ’70s, and shot more punks and goofed around with Burt Reynolds in the ’80s, would become the most consistently serious-minded American director?

That’s not to say Blood Work is a foot-dragging exercise like Absolute Power, pulp shunning its own pulpiness. The story, adapted by Brian Helgeland from a Michael Connelly bestseller, twists and crackles with a certain sadistic logic. FBI agent Terry McCaleb (Eastwood), when we meet him, is being taunted by a serial killer, who likes to scrawl “Catch me” in blood on the wall, along with a numerical code nobody can crack. On his way out of the killer’s latest charnelhouse, McCaleb glimpses someone who may be the culprit; McCaleb gives chase and suffers a heart attack. Cut to two years later: McCaleb, with a transplanted heart beating uneasily in his scarred chest (he touches it constantly, as preoccupied with the raised line of flesh as a David Cronenberg hero), is in retirement. A woman approaches him on his boat — Graciella Rivers (Wanda De Jesus), the sister of the dead woman whose heart was donated to McCaleb. Graciella wants him to find her sister’s ski-masked killer, who shot her during a routine store robbery. Or so it seems.

Against the better judgment of his doctor (Anjelica Huston, tending to her stubborn patient with tender exasperation; there’s an interesting vibe here, since Eastwood once played Huston’s father in fictionalized form in White Hunter, Black Heart), McCaleb takes the case. He encounters resistance from two cops, the sarcastic Paul Rodriguez and the lackadaisical Dylan Walsh. He finds pleasure in reunion with higher-up Tina Lifford — they were once involved, we gather, and now team up to find the robber. He gets assistance from boat neighbor Jeff Daniels, an amiable slacker who drives McCaleb around for lack of a more exciting way to pass the day. And he finds tentative love with Graciella, who also has a little boy.

Blood Work balances text and subtext neatly. We genuinely fear for McCaleb, even when he walks a little too briskly; when he gets himself deeper into the case and faces off against people who can do considerable damage even to men half his age and twice the heart function, the movie is scary on a level that few Eastwood thrillers have been. There’s a weird nightmare scene, oddly never followed up on, in which McCaleb seems to see the murder from the point of view of the victim whose heart is in his chest; it may be in the movie simply because transplant patients do have such near-psychic experiences.

Smoothly assembled as always (by now, Eastwood’s team is a tight unit), and written with equal attention to plot and character (it’s probably Brian Helgeland’s most shapely script in that regard since L.A. Confidential), this is Eastwood’s sharpest filmmaking since the gig that won him an Oscar. And age (he’s 72 now) has done wonders for Eastwood’s acting. I hadn’t noticed before Blood Work how fragile and hoarse his voice is now — maybe he just accentuated it to play a heart patient, for whom every breath is precious and not to be expended on talk. He looks and sounds a little hardier at the end, and we feel he’ll be happy enough to go fishing and leave the violence of the world to younger hands. Eastwood may be leaving it behind, too; he may only have a few more Hollywood thrillers in him before he either retires or steps behind the camera permanently, until he directs while attached to an oxygen tank, just like the man he once played. As a director, he shows no signs of fatigue; let’s hope we have him around for a long autumn.

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