At a time when the US appears less capable than ever of making a decent genre movie, it’s possible to be grateful for favors that in the long view may not be very large. But from here, Blood Work looks like, if not a masterpiece, something just as good.
So far this year, we’ve had thrillers that try to be as bad as or slightly worse than the ones you get on TV for free (Murder by Numbers, High Crimes). We’ve had high-profile directors make genre exercises so formulaic that they disappointed not only the filmmakers’ admirers but also the regular audience for such fare (David Fincher’s Panic Room, John Woo’s Windtalkers). We’ve had a Star Wars film. And we’ve had proof that adding "science fiction" to a whodunit (Minority Report) or a family-values heart tugger (Signs) is considered a valid option for filmmakers who seem mortally afraid that someone somewhere might regard a movie of theirs as a well-crafted entertainment.
In this context, it’s impossible to evaluate Blood Work with any objectivity. A major-studio American movie that conveys the pleasure taken by filmmakers in doing something well that’s worth doing, that unites incident, character, and visual excitement in an organic pattern, and that can be watched without feeling like a toddler in the hands of a depraved babysitter is a far rarer event than even a major artistic success from outside the Hollywood system (I have the figures to prove this if anyone wants them). Blood Work is that rare event, and if, as some say, M. Night Shyamalan is the new Spielberg, I’m prepared to nominate Clint Eastwood as the new Dovzhenko.
In Blood Work, Eastwood returns to a situation he’s treated several times: the obsessive relationship between a cop and a criminal. The director/star plays Terry McCaleb, an FBI agent who’s forced to retire after he suffers a heart attack while chasing a serial killer (in a prologue that’s one of the film’s several nods to Vertigo). Two years later, McCaleb receives a new heart. He’s then approached by Graciela (Wanda De Jesús), the donor’s sister, who reveals that his benefactor was murdered and asks for his help in finding the killer.
Narrative economy demands that the serial killer and the heart donor link up, and Blood Work does not break this rule. In any case, breaking rules isn’t Eastwood’s forte: his strength is in finding nuance, humor, and ceremonial importance in familiar material. The allusions to earlier movies in which he’s starred (including Dirty Harry, Escape from Alcatraz, In the Line of Fire, and Unforgiven) are neither gratuitous nor self-mocking; they enhance the sense that Blood Work is an act of communication with an audience with a shared past. This is what popular culture is supposed to be in theory, but in fact Eastwood is one of the few popular-film makers today for whom the past is a living thing.
Eastwood plays his character as an anachronism who refuses to get up to date — a strategy he’s used before but never with as much success. A key moment has him explaining why he prefers pay phones to cell phones: "I always stay with the hard line." Just by focusing on people’s reactions (incredulous, indignant, grudging) to the leathery McCaleb, Eastwood makes Blood Work into an excellent casual survey of contemporary behavioral styles. And his simplicity enables him to get emotional complexity. A front-porch interview between McCaleb and a murder victim’s widow (Alix Koromzay) probably looked on paper like something most directors would want to get through quickly, but it turns into the best-acted scene in the movie, a tense, brooding study in pain and persistence.
Eastwood also belongs to the despised tradition of old male stars who see nothing wrong with being paired on screen with much younger women. At the screening I attended, the intercutting between the shirtless Eastwood in bed and the approaching De Jesús drew the kind of apprehensive commotion with which audiences respond to the build-up to a gore climax in a horror film. All I can say is (1) though he’s no Wanda De Jesús, Eastwood looks pretty good, and (2) at a time when audiences and critics can accept the likes of Signs as a serious effort, a movie that gets people this upset is probably doing something right.