2008 // USA - Australia // Clint Eastwood // January 16, 2008 // Theatrical Print
C - In the wake of the leaden disappointment of Changeling, it's a relief to see Clint Eastwood deliver a film constructed around a gleefully realized character, even if that character is little more than a cartoon. And, make no mistake, Gran Torino's protagonist, the profane, racist Korean War veteran Walt Kowalski, represents less an archetype than an out-and-out caricature of Eastwood himself. A libertarian grump so cramped up with joyless superiority that he can only wordlessly growl his disapproval at the world, Walt summons contradictory sensations of both admiration and discomfort. On the one hand, he's an engaging avatar for the distinctive brand of masculinity that Eastwood has long proffered as both a performer and film-maker: an endurer, comfortable with verbal and physical sparring, finished with religion, seemingly confident in his personal moral vision, savoring a sanctuary of order claimed from a sea of madness. However, Eastwood shies from a deeper characterization of Walt, evidently satisfied that the old coot's manual lawnmower, cooler full of Pabst, and mint 1972 Ford Gran Torino tell us all we need to know about him. Walt is reduced to a cartoon geezer-hardass who plods through a story littered with other cartoon inhabitants. Sure, there's a wicked delight in seeing a near-octogenarian Harry Callahan (for all practical purposes) dress down every punk who crosses his path. It's not the stoutest basis for a penetrating character study, however, particularly given that the film wants to condemn bigotry generally even while romanticizing it.
Conceptually, Gran Torino seems a little too tidy: a crotchety white widower holding out in his inner-city Detroit bungalow endears himself to his Hmung neighbors quite by accident, and once he gets to know them, wouldn't you know it, his racist heart starts to thaw. Eventually, Walt takes the family's shy son (Bee Vang Lor) under his wing—heedlessly spouting ethnic slurs all the while—and helps defend his clan against a local street gang. The premise has potential in the hands of Eastwood, who has long been a director fascinated with the moral and spiritual intricacies of men with old wounds and rigorously cordoned inner lives. Yet Gran Torino never transcends the appeal of its nickel summary: even though he's really, really old, Clint can still clean up the neighborhood! That said, this appeal is the most potent and successful aspect of the film, no matter that it rests on a metatextual appreciation for Eastwood as a masculine icon and proxy for white America's wish fulfillment. For all its Big Issues seriousness, Gran Torino has a cannily self-aware, almost giddy, sense of humor, and there's a satisfying "For the Fans" tone to the enterprise. When Walt stops his battered Ford pickup at the sight of the girl next door being manhandled by a trio of street corner thugs, it's hard to resist giggling in anticipation: "Oh, man--Clint is going to fuck those guys up."
Therein lies Gran Torino's fundamental flaw. Walt Kowalski betrays some admirable qualities, but as both a director and a performer, Eastwood doesn't lend the guy half the vulernability or nobility of a William Munny or Frankie Dunn. Gran Torino's amused, exaggerated approach to the character suggests a toying with satire, and yet the film-makers also repreatedly signal that Walt is intended to elicit audience sympathy and identification. Simply put, the film's stance towards its protagonist seems a tad confused. When a rifle-toting Walt spits the line, "Get off my lawn!," as military snares play in his head, I think the viewer is supposed to cheer. However, it's worth questioning why we should cheer. Because Walt is justly defending his property and maintaining order within his native environs? Or because, despite the fact that Walt is an unreformed racist and general asshole, he happens to be played by an actor strongly identified with cinematic heroes? This ambiguity in the characterization that Gran Torino aims for--cartoon codger sketched for our delight, silver lion standing up for order, or something else?--lends the film a discomfiting sloppiness, fumbling any promise for a richer character piece. What Eastwood leaves us with is an entertaining speculative exercise (What If Dirty Harry Retired?) and little else.
The central chracter problem is exacerbated by a remarkably long list of sins: predictable plot, awkward dialog, thin characters, and a supporting cast that is generally adrift in Eastwood's presence. Ahney Hey as snarky, whip-smart teenager Sue holds her own, yet her understated barbs are a mismatch (rather than a complement) to Eastwood's stony presence, particularly as amplified in Walt. Where it shakes loose from its otherwise linear trajectory from time to time, Gran Torino uncovers some of Eastwood's brand of lean, witty humanity, as in a digression where Walt brings his Hmung hanger-on, Thao, to the barbershop for a bewildering lesson in the social rules of white people. Lensed by Tom Stern, Eastwood's invaluble ally since Blood Work, Gran Torino maintains the director's long-standing reputation for a makes-it-look-easy balance between stylistic modesty and luscious visuals. Ultimately, however, Gran Torino overwhelmingly eschews art--and even, lamentably, craft--for the pure entertainment value of a grizzled Eastwood kicking ass, and in that it is both gratifying and astonishingly retrograde. Still, as far as Eastwood's 2008 features go, Gran Torino is at least A) shorter; B) more fun; and C) imperfect in more intriguing ways than the dreary, essentially pointless Changeling.