Skip to content

Our Heroes Don’t Grow Up to Be Cowboys

On Clint Eastwood, his relationship with firearms, father/son relationships and masculinity

Sally Gerber (Laura Dern) describes Butch Haynes (Kevin Costner) as a criminal’s criminal. By that she means he’s a man’s man. Butch ended up in prison for minor offenses like stealing cars and taking what he wanted from department stores. He wasn’t a sociopath or a serial murderer, but a man of the past who didn’t fit into today’s worldview. Butch is a man who likes a good Ford truck, an RC Cola and a dirt road as far as the eyes can see. He’s a philosopher of a softer, encouraging masculinity and himself a tender-hearted individual who was dealt a bad hand due to an abusive step-father, a man that audiences assume he killed. Butch was never supposed to be the kind of person that deserved a manhunt from Texas State Police officers. He was a (mostly) justified outlaw who was too big for this world, and he was a surrogate father for Phillip Perry (T.J. Lowther). The lone son in a family of daughters in Clint Eastwood’s, A Perfect World.

Eastwood’s conception of fatherhood is an instrument of opposing forces colliding into one whole. Frequently he presents a wayward father-figure who has lost track of his child or that child has died, and then he finds his parental strength through a surrogate bond. In Million Dollar Baby (2004)for example, Frankie (Eastwood in one of his finest roles) has a damaged relationship with his daughter. He writes her constantly and goes to confession in militant fashion week in and week out to answer for some unexplained guilt he has with his daughter. Maggie (Hillary Swank) starts training at his gym and Frankie doesn’t appreciate a girl showing up to hit a heavy bag, especially one as old as Maggie who’s “ten years past her prime” in Frankie’s words. Frankie is a sexist who doesn’t take to training girls seriously until he sees just how spunky and hard-working Maggie happens to be, and Frankie sees something of himself in her. They eventually form a bond that becomes family. Frankie is the one who sits beside Maggie’s bedside when she gets injured, and he’s the one who reads her stories. He’s the one who says Maggie is “his darling, my blood”. This in contrast to how Maggie’s birth family only wants her for money. Eastwood’s rejection of family values by negating the possibilities of birth families while relishing in the potential love in found family complicates his standing as a conservative filmmaker, and gives his work a comunal, America at its best value, that runs like a current through his entire oeuvre.

Phillip Perry lives with his sisters and mother and has no father-figure to speak of in his household, and in the 1960s that was not something that was readily accepted by society. His mother is a Jehova’s Witness and we see Philip for the first time pining for a chance to go trick or treating, but it’s against his mother’s religion so he’s stuck in the house watching kids pelt his house with eggs and his childhood pass away. By a random act of chance Butch and his escaped convict partner Jerry (Keith Szarbajka) break into Philip’s house and kidnap the boy when they need a bargaining chip to keep themselves alive, but the impactful moment here is in Butch and Philip’s first moments together. Butch punches Jerry square in the nose leaving him bloodied when he tries to rape Philip’s mother (Jerry is not a criminal’s criminal. He is a psychopath) and he drops his gun. Philip walks up to the gun and Butch tells him to pick it up and point it at him. Philip complies and walks over to Butch keeping the gun focused on his soon to be surrogate father until Butch takes it from him gently picks the boy up. At this point in the story it’s entirely possible that Butch was simply using Philip as insurance and knew how to handle kids, but it reads as the first lesson and sweet gesture between the two souls.

In Eastwood’s filmography knowing how to use a gun and the consequences of that knowledge are addressed in the hands of fathers and their sons, whether they be surrogate or natural born. The most famous example of this is in Unforgiven(1992) where William Munny (Clint Eastwood) consoles “the Schofield Kid” (Jaimz Woolvett) after he kills a man for the first time. The Kid is struggling to grasp what he has just done. He’s in disbelief, chugging whiskey and holding back tears before Munny utters a few words on killing that resonate beyond Unforgivenand are applicable to many of Eastwood’s films. “It’s a hell of a thing, killing a man. You take away all he’s got…and all he’s ever gonna have”. The kid feels his words and lowers his head before saying “Well, I guess they had it coming” to which Munny replies “We all have it coming kid”. This exchange in Unforgiven weighs the importance of killing a person and the responsibility that comes with carrying a weapon. It’s implied here that Eastwood is asserting through his cinema that if you kill someone don’t expect to go unpunished or unobserved, that someone or something will come back to get you. If one is to look in contrast at one of his recent films American Sniper these ideas are brought to their most sickening through acts of war. There is one scene in that movie that paints the titular Chris Kyle (Bradly Cooper) as someone who has been taught to kill through his father and how that conditioned him to kill other human beings. At the beginning of that film Chris is seen staring down a long rifle waiting worriedly to see if a mother and child are going to engage in warfare. Chris doesn’t want to kill these people, but in doing his job he pulls the trigger when it is seen that they have an explosive, but what makes this scene important is the cut that happens directly afterward. When Chris pulls the trigger a child doesn’t fall dead, but instead a deer. His father congratulates him and the audience is sent back in time to Chris’ youth. The cut signifies something devastatingly tragic; that this behaviour is solicialized in white American boys,  and Chris has always been killing. His father taught him that this is what men do. Additionally, in cinematic terms that cut implies the conditioning that comes with brainwashing troops into killing anyone that they see as a threat, and in the cultural history of America that means foreigners, and more often than not people of colour. This cut is in direct opposition of what Munny was talking about in Unforgiven and instead of weighing life Chris’s father congratulates him for murdering an animal and sets in motion the actions of Chris Kyle. These two opposing “lessons” taught by fathers and father-figures in these two films paint a clear picture of what neglect and support look like through Conservative American ideas of masculinity as that pertains to weapons.

Butch Haynes is a little bit different than both of these men, but similarly justifies killing people if they threaten ones he loves. Chris Kyle can accept killing under the guise of protecting his country, William Munny kills when someone murders one of his close friends, and Butch Haynes kills when his loved ones are in danger (in this case his mother and Philip). In the films of Clint Eastwood, the second amendment is commandment, and gun violence is simply within the lifeblood of the image. It’s law, judge, jury and executioner for wild west that still realistically exists and offers virtue for white men with a reason. Eastwood, generally, takes an ambivalent stance in service of the narrative itself, and this same ambivalence, treating it as something that just is, rather than something to rally behind or condemn gives his films about men and gun violence a clear-headedness and honesty on what actually fuels the United States of America.

After taking Philip hostage Butch begins to bond with the child over their similar fatherless childhoods, but the other man in the vehicle, Jerry, is always an interjecting force that Butch can’t control. Jerry is a chaotic animal whose actions are unpredictable and driven by fucking and killing. He’s not a dynamic character, and when Butch finally kills him (a justified murder in this case) when he threatens Philip the film has the room to breathe in the surrogate father-son relationship of Butch and Philip.

Meanwhile, A Perfect Worldis navigating another plot of mentorship between Sally and her tough-nosed old fashioned law enforcement superior Red (played by director Clint Eastwood). Sally is a fresh-faced woman recently assigned to the job with some ideas that are uncommon in the mid 60s, and too radical for her male colleagues. She’s a criminal psychologist among old Cowboys who shoot first and ask questions later, and even worse, a woman in a man’s world. Sally conflicts with every last bit of their worldview, both in how she tackles her job, and through her place as a woman in a line of work with a hefty glass-ceiling. Sally continually is mistreated, second-guessed and harassed by her colleagues, but she’s tough as nails and has more in common with Red than either of them want to admit. She earns his begrudging respect by never backing down and his brutishness towards her is the tough love she needs to thrive in this job. When they discover Jerry’s dead body on their manhunt for Butch Sally vomits and Red cracks jokes suggesting to her “Gallows humour Sally, without it we’d all be losing our lunch”. She essentially has to become one of the boys and Red’s giving her a way she can adapt. Later, Sally impresses Red with her psychoanalysis of Butch and finds that maybe she has a thing or two up her sleeve that they haven’t considered and what she’s saying isn’t just mumbo-jumbo. Their interpersonal work relationship becomes a secondary key to the relationship Philip and Butch are experiencing by mirroring it and giving weight to Eastwood’s power at cultivating these relationships that work as family and love despite these people being from opposite sides of the track. It’s American idealism at its purest, and a liberal notion.

Eastwood’s laid back style and gentle rhythm’s benefit the budding relationship between Butch and Philip. There are many seemingly digressions that inform the love that is fostered between the two. In one instance Philip takes a Halloween costume from a local department store and Butch sees that Philip feels guilty. Butch tells Philip that if he wants something badly enough he can borrow it because there’s always an “exception to the rule”. Philip stares on with wide-eyes and a buoyant smile. Having that Halloween costume meant the world to him, but even more so, the act of taking him trick or treating gave Philip a memory that he’d never forget. When Butch hears that Philip can’t have as much fun as he’d like because of his mother’s religion he’s upset proclaiming that “You have a god damn red, white and blue right to eat cotton candy and ride rollercoasters”. Butch’s optimism and overcompensation of what a real father would look like mean that Philip is given an opportunity to explore a side of himself that he never had the chance to navigate with his mother or sisters. Butch doesn’t know how to be a father, but he knows what he would have liked to have as a kid and that’s good enough for Philip to fall in love with his criminal guardian. These scenes are peppered with moments of touch that breach the shell of hard masculinity that Eastwood is known for in the public eye. Philip and Butch hold hands frequently, even to the end.

Sally’s path to something resembling fatherly adoration from Red isn’t as easy as Butch and Philip’s, but they come to an understanding in a large exposition drops that ties Red and Butch together as well as making Sally feel like a partner on equal footing with the man she’s probing. Sally knows that Red and Butch have a history that goes back to Butch’s time in juvenile prison system so she brings it up to Red over coffee and a warm fire. The camera sits and lets these two simply talk, as it does with Butch and Philip, and finally the connection between these two relationships becomes concrete. It’s revealed that Red made sure Butch served an extended sentence to keep him out of touch with his abusive father. In Red’s exact words “He was a man who beat and hit on everything he came in contact with”, and this presents the psychology of why Butch is the way he is and why he clamors to treat Philip right. Red tried to make the right choice and be the type of good man that Butch didn’t have by making sure he was safe, but Butch ended up being a criminal anyway, and that is his regret. Sally besting Red by getting him to talk about this subject is her own little passing of the torch moment and the two of them remain sympatico throughout their time together in the remainder of the movie.

Butch has scars that he can’t hide and a temper just like his father. He runs from these feelings, but in his own sense of justification and his idea of misplaced revenge against his father he hurts other people. There are two moments in A Perfect World where Butch fails Philip, but the key one is an encounter with a poor family of farmers who let the two of them rest for the night. Things are fine and Butch is as charming as ever, dancing to some Cajun jazz with the eldest woman of the house and flipping the youngest child up and down much to his delight, but things turn sour when Butch sees the child’s father hit him in the side of the head to get him to obey. Butch shuts down, and it is great credit to Costner who is able to play these two facets of this man so brilliantly that make the following scene so hard to stomach. Butch ties the family up while they weep and pray for their lives. Butch was only going to kill the father who hurt the child, but the other two don’t know that and they’re horrified. Philip didn’t know either. The scene is drug out to an excruciating length, and Eastwood’s tendencies to let the camera rest in a moment make the scene genuinely horrific. The tension only breaks when Philip can’t stand it any longer. Having learned the lesson Butch taught him about how and why to use a gun when they first met he shoots Butch and runs away.

The failure of Butch as a father lies in his own upbringing. He was doomed to repeat the sins of his own father because the lessons we teach our children become imprinted and character traits of our parents are hard to deny. Butch escaped prison to find his father in Alaska, but he’d never have the chance to meet up with him again. As Butch bleeds out underneath a tall, strong sloping tree Philip holds him and they talk about everything like they always have leading up to this moment. Red and Sally finally catch up to Butch after Philip slows him down and with a siege of police officers they wait to see their next move. One special agent (Bradley Whitford) pulls out a sniper rifle and says that he has a shot whenever they’re ready, but Red moves down to confront the mistake he made years ago when he sent Butch away. Red, Butch and Philip walk to surrender. Butch knows Red from somewhere, but he can’t place it and Red doesn’t give himself, but Red understands that he didn’t fail Butch in the way he thought. Butch wasn’t as evil as he thought he might have been when he sees how Butch is treating Philip. They truly love each other despite Philip’s shortcomings, but it wasn’t meant to last. The sniper pulls his trigger before Butch can surrender and he’s gone. “You take away everything he’s got and everything he’s ever gonna have” comes into play in Butch’s final moments as his Alaskan post-card glistens with blood. To take away a man’s life is the ultimate sin in the cinema of Clint Eastwood, and it weighs men down and beats them down until they aren’t much more than a shell. For all the iconic imagery of Eastwood holding a gun throughout his career he has always been assured of the repercussions of these weapons existing and how easily they can destroy. In American Sniper a man gets swallowed whole by duty and war while taking lessons learned to him by his own father to their horrific apex, and in Unforgiven William Munney damns himself in a hail of gunfire in a quest for revenge, and the cost of these decisions ultimately fails both these men. Butch doesn’t make it either, and Philip is left alone, as are the children of Chris Kyle and William Munney. As justified as you feel you may be, if you live by the gun, you too, shall die. In his dying breath Butch offered an apology to Philip proclaiming in his own words “I ain’t the best man, but I ain’t the worst neither”. It is in those words lie the parentage of Eastwood’s wayward fathers and bastard sons. These men tried, and so did their fathers before them. It’s a cycle, repeating itself in a whirlpool of white American masculinity.

Published inUncategorized

Be First to Comment

Leave a Reply