#17 in my ranking of Clint Eastwood’s films.
After the special effects dominated Firefox, Clint Eastwood went off for a few weeks to make a little movie about a singer in the Great Depression who takes his nephew halfway across the country, bonding along the way and imparting some life lessons. It seems pretty obvious to me which one Eastwood had his heart in, and which one was done purely for commercial reasons. Working with one of his many children, Kyle, Eastwood, working from a script by Clancy Carlile based on Carlile’s book of the same name, made a personal film that feels surprisingly autobiographical.
On an Oklahoma farm during the Dust Bowl, the Wagoneer family is hitting hard times when the mother of the family, Emmy (Verna Boom), discovers that her errant brother Red Stovall (Eastwood Sr.) tearing down the family’s fence as he drunkenly drives into it. He’s working his way eastward from California to Nashville with the promise of a tryout on the Grand Ole Opry. Emmy’s son Whit (Eastwood Jr.) becomes enamored of his uncle with his fancy car, guitar, and promises of life outside a rundown sharecropper house. It’s a time of change, and Virgil Wagoneer (Matt Clark) is talking about uprooting the entire family to go to California to find greener pastures. His father (John McIntire) would rather go east with Red to Tennessee, the place of his birth.
Red is not, however, a particularly good person, and it becomes clearer as the film goes on. He has no problem taking Whit (whom he calls Hoss) to a honkytonk, and even stealing some chickens in the middle of the night. He’s exciting to the young, sheltered farm boy, though, and when Red brings up the idea of taking both Grandpa and Whit along with him, Whit begs until his mother agrees under certain conditions. So begins the road trip which dominates the film. It’s a series of events from Oklahoma to Tennessee where Red has a run-in with a bull, Whit goes into his first cathouse, Red tries to collect on an old debt, ends up needing to rob a place while picking up a wayward waitress Marlene (Alexa Kenin).
The point of it all is Whit being exposed to the life that Red has led over the past decades. A life of flophouses and honkytonks, constantly on the move and without any real roots anywhere. It’s obviously enticing to the young boy, but as the trip continues and complications arise time and time again, the portrait begins to fill out. Red has a cough that won’t go away (yes, the movie cough). They always seem to be a bad word away from the police taking them in. Marlene becomes extra clingy to the point that Red arranges to leave her behind. There’s a disavowal of close relationships, highlighted by Red’s occasional reminders that he could drop Whit at any moment if he gets in his way. The whole situation ends up driving Grandpa away as well.
In Nashville is where, of course, the character journey comes to its end, and the ending pushes Red to his end. It’s largely standard, dramatic tragedy stuff, but there’s one moment that was really quite wonderful. Driving away from a bar one night, Red tells Whit about the girl he wanted to marry some years back. It’s a story that’s purely Red, all about stealing a woman from her husband to run around with her, barely surviving wherever they went, and lying to her about loving her. Except, maybe he wasn’t really lying? It was something he never really considered until she left him to go back to her husband. It’s a reveal of a deep sadness in this wayward life, a questioning of whether it was really worthwhile. Still, as Whit says, it’s better than living in a one-room sharecropper farm, right?
The resolution is a bit generic, but it’s held together by performance. Eastwood, Sr. gives one of his most interesting performances, ranging from easily charismatic to convincingly mean, and it’s managed well within the story, not really acting like a huge showcase but appropriately being applied to the correct moment. Kyle Eastwood is also surprisingly good. His casting was an outright bit of nepotism (Eastwood was apparently just tickled at the idea of Kyle trying to make it in his own business), and with coaching from Sondra Locke, he gives a convincing performance that never grates. Working with children is obviously a hard thing, and you either direct them into a very tight space, which can take a very long time (like Peter Bogdanovich directing Tatum O’Neal in Paper Moon), or you essentially direct them to play themselves. Considering Eastwood’s reputation of getting what he wants on single takes, it seems likely that father simply got son into the right mental place before shooting a scene and let it play out. It works. Kyle Eastwood’s performance may not go down as one of the great child performances ever, but it’s very, very far from the worst.
There are some really nice character moments at play, especially late, but the film ends up playing a bit too generically to become something really special. Still, it’s a quite nice little surprise from Eastwood’s 80s output. It’s not great. It’s far from bad. It’s amusing, sweet, and sometimes even a bit touching.