Saturday, January 10, 2009

Eastwood's Gran Torino Makes Hard-Earned Virtue Out of Politically Incorrect Cantankerousness

As I write this, Gran Torino gets a 76% on RottenTomatoes while Changeling, Eastwood's earlier movie this year, only gets a 59%. Gran Torino also seems to be getting the critical award mentions and gossip (as well as getting the weekend boxoffice, probably from theatergoers eager to see Clint Eastwood's rumored last big screen acting performance), while Changeling is largely overlooked. This is reminiscent of a couple years ago, when Eastwood also had two movies out: Letters from Iwo Jima and Flags of Our Fathers, both of which were good but one of which was considered the more outstanding.

The reason I bring up Changeling in this review of Gran Torino, however, is because contrary to public opinion, I find it the more excellent movie. Not because Gran Torino is bad. It's a very good film, and Eastwood gives a great, gritty performance. Who knew back in the days of Dirty Harry that Eastwood would become not only one of our great acting talents, but one of our greatest film storytellers? This guy's talent is simply amazing. But while I find the Changeling to be truly revelatory filmmaking, Gran Torino tackles a similarly great story, but with some corners cut.

One of the things that distinguishes an Eastwood film is the way in which he tells a story that strongly engages our moral senses, with a straightforward narrative that engrosses us in how the choices that the characters make elucidate their moral universe. Eastwood is a master of this and Gran Torino delivers its moral theme with all engines firing.

But Eastwood does stack the deck in Gran Torino a bit more than usual. Eastwood plays Walt Kowalski, a character who perhaps embodies the dictionary definition of "old codger." He has nary a pleasantry for anyone and his most endearing affection for his friends is to call them some disparaging racial slur. He also has a bit of the old Dirty Harry idea of what constitutes masculinity. His "dago / pollack" routine with his barber friend is meant to epitomize the height of male friendship, I suppose. Now imagine Walt as father/grandfather to a family of spoiled Yuppies, his wife newly deceased, a twenty-five-year-old priest attempting to minister to his soul, and an immigrant Hmong family living next door in his long-ago-racially diversified and decaying neighborhood, in which he refuses to move out - and throw in a multi-cultural assortment of gangs spoiling for trouble - and you have the picture of the kind of narrative dynamite that screenwriter Nick Schenk has planted all around the growling and cantankerous Walt.

Walt's story, then, is how he learns to face the deficiencies of his life, adopt a substitute family, and eventually, with help from the persistent if young priest, salvage his soul.

The journey Walt has to take would be more predictable if it weren't that Eastwood was so good in the role (he seems to be acting as if to say, "I was born to play this part, and I'm going out in style"), and if it weren't that Eastwood was also a masterful director able to elicit authentic performances from Bee Vang and Ahney Her, who play the neighboring Hmong kids who have the temerity to crack through Walt's artifice of cantankerousness and learn the life-lessons that this old man has been dying to teach to someone. The three actors bond through their various adversities to create the kind of family Walt has always yearned for.

And indeed, some of Walt's racial observations in Gran Torino are deeply insightful, especially in the sealed-in politically correct multicultural world we live in. Walt's diffusing of a particularly tense encounter between Sue Lor and her white boyfriend (a.k.a. "pussy," according to Walt) and a trio of black thugs is especially cutting. ("I don't think they want to be your bro," he tells the white guy after going crazy batshit on the black dudes.) But I feel, as I said, everything is stacked a bit too easily to make Walt the movie's only truth teller. His real-life family are but mere Yuppie cartoons, and even the gang members are barely more developed than the typical Dirty Harry villains. All this makes Walt's redemption more mythic than realistic, and though that may be the point, since we feel such realness and filmic care with the neighboring Hmong family, it's a shame that the other characters aren't given a bit more due. The movie wants us to understand that truly bonding with people is not something that's achieved through politically correct platitudes or the easy spoils of Yuppie privilege - rather, boding is hard-earned by telling and hearing the hard truth. Yes, but those Yuppies are especially dreadful, and they're not given any opportunity to redeem themselves. In one scene toward the end of the movie with Walt's granddaughter, she expresses an interest in Walt's vintage Gran Torino and we're meant to understand her reaction to what happens to it as selfishness, when in fact the story behind it is something that she couldn't possibly know. She's still a brat, yes, but but she isn't as cold as the movie wants us to believe her to be at that moment, and that felt like a cheat, to me.

It's a rare slip for Eastwood, who has become a master of tone and audience sympathy in his films. And this film certainly pushes the envelope of sympathy, with a character that rides on the edges of tolerance. But these criticisms are exceptions to this otherwise fine film, and that's no reason this movie shouldn't be on the short list of any Oscar watchers this season.

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