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Holy Hell! The Bridges of Madison County Turns 20

Holy Hell! The Bridges of Madison County Turns 20

No other film in Clint Eastwood’s sizable filmography is like The Bridges of Madison County.

No other film in Clint Eastwood’s sizable filmography is like The Bridges of Madison County. Shot in verdant Iowan countryside, the film is a muted romantic melodrama that harks back to ‘50s women’s pictures. Its protagonist is Francesca (Meryl Streep), an Italian immigrant who married an American GI with dreams of seeing America in all its exciting modernity and instead ended up in Iowa. From the outside, Francesca’s life seems as idyllic as her surroundings: she has the Norman Rockwell postwar life, with a quaint home, a loving husband, two kids, probably even a chicken in at least half of her pots. The thin veneer of her happiness rips and frays, however, when photographer Robert Kincaid (Eastwood) arrives in town to document the famous bridges nearby.

By casting himself as the romantic lead, Eastwood not only acknowledges his enduring good looks, he clarifies this seeming stylistic departure as a logical extension of his form. In its rhythms and barely reworked archetypes, the film can easily be seen as a western, one in which Eastwood’s mysterious hero comes from nowhere to liberate the damsel not from danger but boredom and her own failed hopes. Speaking to Robert back at her house after they meet, Francesca admits to the stranger that her life is “not…what I dreamed of…as a girl,” the pregnant pauses in the sentence drawing out a secret she’s never told anyone.

In keeping with mentors and idols like Don Siegel and Sam Fuller, Eastwood has always been a prose stylist, lacing profundities into his best movies while maintaining a sense of direct aestheticization and emotional progression. The same approach defines Bridges, but rarely has the director had a better demonstration of the malleability of his spare style than here. In the same scene where Francesca talks about her frustrations with the simple life, Jack N. Green uses shadow to turn the homely kitchen, erstwhile a symbol of family gathering, into a Rockwell-cum-Hopper spot of intense loneliness. Even the bright, daytime exteriors have such a stark, quiet quality that they reverberate with compromise and disappointment.

Acting in Eastwood films, particularly those made in the late stage of his career, is a wildly variable quality, and the area in which the director’s un-fussy, shoot-’n-go method often bites him hardest in the ass. But by paring down the crucial parts to only himself and Streep, Eastwood ducks the histrionics that started to set into his movies starting in the new millennium. Both actors play their parts with total reserve, hitting a mark where they feel sufficiently relaxed to admit their hangups to each other but still tense and reticent to admit them to themselves. When their feelings fully manifest, they do so in a slow dance in Francesca’s kitchen. The camera stays close to their faces as they shuffle around until at last Robert whispers “If you want me to stop, tell me now.” “No one’s asking you to,” she responds, charging the scene with more erotic release than an outright sex scene. Then, at the end, Eastwood shows himself at his most vulnerable, standing in the rain with his hair matted in thinned clumps over his pale, cold forehead as he stares after Francesca, who decides to keep the peace with her family. His look of abandoned dog longing, etched as it is with a faint smile of understanding and encouragement, distills Eastwood’s loner image into a vision of tragedy, punctuated by the equally small but deft directorial flourish of communicating Robert’s exit from Francesca’s life with a turn signal.

The Bridges of Madison County closed out the most varied phase of Eastwood’s directorial career, a time that gave the world a Charlie Parker biopic and White Hunter, Black Heart, a bleak critique of directorial autocracy in which Eastwood channels the spirit of John Huston. Nonetheless, people still single this film out as the odd detour of the director’s work, despite its considerable profit margin and critical acclaim. With time, though, the film has emerged as one of Eastwood’s best. A few elements would recur again in Eastwood’s later movies, like updating Francesca’s immigrant alienation in racial and political terms in Gran Torino’s Hmong characters, but never again would the director attain the level of subtlety and psychological insight that he does here.

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