Review: Honkytonk Man

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Often mentioned by Eastwood alongside Bronco Billy as his personal favourites among his oeuvre, Honkytonk Man pulls back the pace from the poorly received action of Firefox, released earlier the same year.

Drunkenly crashing his car through the fence of his sister and her family, aspiring country singer and tuberculosis sufferer Red Stovall holes up with his relatives for a few days before making his way to Nashville to audition for the Grand Ole Opry. Bonding during the visit with his nephew Whit, he decides to bring the youngster along for the ride.

Continuing Eastwood’s thematic fixation with masculinity and its traditional (mis)interpretation, Honkytonk Man’s old-young dynamic is an early predecessor to the later A Perfect World, the two sharing much in the way of themes, tone, and indeed plot. Along the way to Nashville, Red introduces his nephew to the world of men, offering him whiskey and overseeing his first sexual encounter. This indoctrination into adulthood is a path Whit is somewhat reluctant to take, questioning whether or not he truly wants to become a man in the vein of Red, the hard-drinking, womanizing, and essentially lonely black sheep. Whit desires to both care for his uncle and to change him; to help him, through realizing his dream, to become a better person. Eastwood conveys Red’s flaws unrelentingly, never afraid to communicate the extent of his flaws. One scene in particular sees him immediately run upon hearing a young girl with whom he has drunkenly slept is “in the family way”, a humour-laden scene but nonetheless one which exposes Red for the deeply flawed misogynist he is. Whit, by contrast, cares deeply for this girl, treating her respectfully and staying with her to ensure her safety after Red takes a bus to Nashville following the car’s breaking down. As Whit, Eastwood’s son Kyle demonstrates that a talent for acting may well be genetic, never putting a foot wrong alongside his seasoned father, impressive for an actor quite so young. Languishly paced, there arrives a minor problem in the film’s narrative: knowing only the basic premise of the film, one could rather easily imagine how the drama will pan out. The eventual conclusion comes as no surprise, and yet the emotional impact the film manages to create makes this seem trivial. The general story may be familiar, even somewhat overdone, but Eastwood’s darkened delivery ensures we are made to buy into the reality of these characters and their situation. The underlying examination of underexplored potential—primarily articulated in Red’s bitterness toward those around him, born of unfulfilled talent—lends an additional element of tragedy to this story, as well as universally communicable empathetic material. Among the most admirable of the film’s achievements is the way in which it manages to have us feel for Red as he struggles to attain his dream, despite his major character flaws. He is, in many ways, a man beyond moral redemption, yet we cannot help but root for him to make it to Nashville. Brief mention should be made of the title track, music-centric as the film is: a charming country song with Eastwood’s quietly soothing vocals, the perfect accompaniment to the end credits.

The narrative arc of Honkytonk Man may not be surprising, but the genuineness of the emotions it engenders makes it easy to forgive. A tough, uncompromising, and quietly tragic look at issues of masculinity, fulfilling one’s potential, and the American dream, it is a sensitive— though never maudlin—tale of a flawed man.

[notification type=”star”]70/100 – The narrative arc of Honkytonk Man may not be surprising, but the genuineness of the emotions it engenders makes it easy to forgive.[/notification]

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About Author

Ronan Doyle is an Irish freelance film critic, whose work has appeared on Indiewire, FilmLinc, Film Ireland, FRED Film Radio, and otherwhere. He recently contributed a chapter on Arab cinema to the book Celluloid Ceiling, and is currently entangled in an all-encompassing volume on the work of Woody Allen. When not watching movies, reading about movies, writing about movies, or thinking about movies, he can be found talking about movies on Twitter. He is fuelled by tea and has heard of sleep, but finds the idea frightfully silly.