** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Buddy Van Horn

Written by John Eskow

With Clint Eastwood, Bernadette Peters, and Geoffrey Lewis.

In a way, all of Clint Eastwood’s films–including his detective stories–can be read as westerns, with Eastwood’s character invariably portraying the lone gunfighter passing through town just long enough to clean up the bad guys. Certainly Eastwood himself has a longing for the form and has done his best to revive it, or at least keep its memory alive. However, love breeds complexity, and trying to cast all of Eastwood’s films in a single mold unduly flattens them out and reduces their richness. If you must see all his films as stories of cowboys and Indians, it is important to know who are the cowboys and who are the Indians.

In his latest film, Pink Cadillac, Eastwood plays Sacramento-based Tommy Nowak, a bounty hunter who specializes in scouring the dusty back roads of inland California and Nevada, tracking down bail jumpers for the bondsmen who posted bail. His latest target is Lou Ann McGuinn (Bernadette Peters), the wife of a low-class grifter whose incompetence has gotten her arrested for possession of his counterfeit loot. Afraid that she will lose custody of her baby, Lou Ann hits the road in her husband’s pink Cadillac with what she thinks is the rest of the counterfeit cache stuffed under the convertible top. Unfortunately for her, the money is the real McCoy, and it belongs to a dangerous bunch of ex-cons, members of the white-supremacist Birthright, who immediately set out after her. Nowak not only has to fetch back Lou Ann, he also has to take on the wilderness-dwelling killers in the process.

When the gang–a motley collection of superannuated bikers–kidnaps Lou Ann’s baby, it looks like the film might be developing as an updating of The Searchers. Certainly Eastwood has expressed his affection for John Ford’s movies often enough, and echoes of Fordian loss have always existed in Eastwood’s own work. Like the heroes of Ford’s late westerns, Eastwood’s recent characters have an air of fatalism; they seem content to blaze a heroic path to their own self-destruction. Just as John Wayne’s Tom Doniphon in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance killed to defend a social order that had no place for him, so Dirty Harry routinely unleashes himself to protect a society that cannot accommodate his violent excess.

But hints of disillusionment have always clung to Eastwood’s films, and lately they have grown into dark satire and absurdism. Heartbreak Ridge featured a Marine Corps riven by corruption and mean self-interest; Bird depicted a destructive racism built into the country’s governing fabric; and The Dead Pool took Dirty Harry to a reductio ad absurdum, as he battled a shadowy evil of cinema and special effects.

Like The Dead Pool, Pink Cadillac is directed not by Eastwood but by Buddy Van Horn, a longtime collaborator who started out as a stunt specialist and second unit director. Van Horn’s efforts–which include Every Which Way but Loose and Any Which Way You Can–always contain more broad humor than Eastwood’s own work, and here Van Horn also displays a characteristic weakness directing supporting players. Otherwise, given Eastwood’s supervisory control, the films do not depart much from the director-producer’s vision.

At any rate, Pink Cadillac opens with a shot right out of the Eastwood canon: An elevated crane shot looks over a desert, watching a road snake off into the distant horizon. Panning right and down, the angle lowers and the horizon line slowly vanishes, replaced by a gas station as the movement finally ends near ground level with the view of a ramshackle bungalow. It is a perfect deflationary moment, the heroic view replaced by a worm’s-eye perspective in a single shot. This is the setup for a typical bit of comic Eastwood action: inside the house, skip tracer Nowak traps a loutish fugitive with that old lawman’s dodge about winning a contest. Gussied up and relaxed, the grizzled victim soon finds himself handcuffed and trussed.

So the frontier has been settled, but the descendants of those settlers hardly represent pioneer stock. What they’ve inherited is hardly the dream of a new Eden: these desert dwellers are petty, greedy, cunning, and lazy, hustling rather than working. The only big city to get much exposure in the movie is Reno, a get-rich scam full of willing suckers. Nowak and Lou Ann eventually team up against the Birthright, traveling from town to town, inhabiting a succession of ugly motel rooms and passing one collapsing settlement after another.

This is where the American dream washes up, the distant shore where the oceans of transcontinental immigrants planted their dreams. And disappointment and rage have made their dreams perverse. That is where the Birthright comes in. With their racist ideology–no American filmmaker makes more direct attacks on racism than Eastwood–and pathetic ambitions of success couched in pseudonationalist terms, this scrub-dwelling bunch of losers are less wild Indians than a rootless, wandering band of decadent and idiotic cowboys pursuing a worthless chimera.

This bitter vision is made palatable with healthy doses of humor. When Eastwood decides to penetrate the gang, his disguise amounts to no more than a baseball cap, a mouthful of tobacco, and a weirdly comic lisping sputter. Although the confrontations are bloody and even catastrophic, many of the gang’s defeats are presented as comic anticlimax; you can almost hear a plungered trumpet wah-wahing on the sound track when the losers find themselves foiled again. Eastwood always has trouble taking organized toughs seriously; even in a serious action film like The Gauntlet, the appearance of a motorcycle gang heralds a comic interlude.

Of course even with humor this vision would be too dank and despairing to bear if it didn’t offer some ray of hope. As expected, the fitful romance between Nowak and Lou Ann is the spark of light in the overwhelming gloom. Largely because the two stars are so polished and knowing, the notion that two people can carve out a little island of integrity in a sold-out world comes across as likely and even logical. The final scene of the two planning television commercials for their new skip-tracing business is warm and inviting.

Eastwood constantly shifts back and forth in his feelings about the relationship between his heroes and the society that breeds them. At times he seems to accept their netherworld, hovering at the fringes with a longing for the center. Tommy Nowak is one of those fringe dwellers, but his eye is cast toward the outside. The strangest character in Pink Cadillac, played by Geoffrey Lewis, Eastwood’s personal Gabby Hayes, is Ricky Z, a long-haired babbler of Aquarian nonsense who operates a sophisticated document-forging operation in a lonely rural cabin. The combination of isolation and high tech is a Whole Earth Catalogue fantasy that Eastwood brings to full life. When Birthright hoodlums beat Ricky up and set his cabin on fire, Ricky gets away by banging down a wall and slipping out into the night. This creator of false identities is never seen again, but the escapade is a prelude to the film’s larger denouement. When Nowak and Lou Ann finally outwit the Birthright, it is a matter of escape, not vengeance or even one-upmanship. Eastwood deliberately rejects the usual instrument of his triumph and chooses instead simply to wander off, this time with his own frontier family.