Sunday, January 4, 2009

Gran Torino


Clint Eastwood's Gran Torino posits a very simple "what if" scenario: what if Eastwood's Dirty Harry character grew up, aged into the sort of grizzled old veteran who sits on his front porch swigging beers and chasing the neighborhood kids off his lawn? What if Dirty Harry was confronted with a punky young modern girl with a belly-button ring? What if Dirty Harry caught a kid trying to steal his treasured car? What if Dirty Harry was being harassed by a fresh-faced young priest trying to save his soul? What if Dirty Harry woke up one night to find a bunch of Asian gang members on his lawn? The answer, in all cases, is strikingly similar: Eastwood growls, grits his teeth, scrunches up his eyes into a fearsome squint, and more often than not, unleashes a jaw-dropping stream of bluntly racist obscenities. Sometimes, he pulls a gun. Sometimes, he only pretends to. But always the growl, which is sometimes more like a simian grunt, and always the squint, as though the enormity of the idiocy that's happening before his eyes is positively blinding.

It's frankly hard to know what to make of this film. It's unrelentingly blunt and straight-faced for much of its length, and yet it's hard to take it entirely at face value. Its caricature of the tough-guy action hero as a nasty racist who actually says things like "get off my lawn" — seriously, he couldn't have added "hey, kids" at the beginning of that line? — demands to be taken seriously as an act of deconstruction, and yet so much of the dialogue that comes out of this walking stereotype is laughable or downright silly. Maybe that's the point. Eastwood's Walt Kowalski is a man out of his time. He's a Korean War vet whose wife has just died, and he finds himself in a neighborhood whose ethnic mix is changing in ways he isn't prepared to cope with. He's gotten used to trading barbs with "micks" and "wops," and he maintains a foul-mouthed but comradely relationship with his white ethnic buddies, who pass insults back and forth while saving their most vicious jokes for Jews and Mexicans, true Others. Obviously, Walt is uncomfortable with his Hmong Vietnamese neighbors, who he openly sneers at, referring to them as gooks even right to their faces.

It's hard to imagine a film in which prejudice is more directly on the surface, and this is perhaps part of the problem with taking Eastwood entirely seriously. Walt is a throwback to another time, but so is the film as a whole: a time when prejudice really was this out in the open, this obvious, rather than existing on a more subtle and institutional level. There's nothing subtle about Gran Torino, which wears its messages about racism, masculinity, and intergenerational conflict right on its sleeve. There's hardly a character in the film who isn't a stereotype of some sort, from Eastwood's crotchety old racist to his openly greedy and uncaring family to the tough-talking gangbangers in the neighborhood to the white kid who tries to be black by wearing a backwards baseball cap and saying "bro" a lot. It'd all be faintly silly if Eastwood himself didn't play it so straight, really infusing this teeth-gritting old bastard with a stubborn intensity and even a surprising pathos. His moments of vulnerability — like his fits of coughing up blood — are all the more moving because the character is otherwise such a Hollywood cliché of masculine action-star aggression. At one point, after visiting a doctor and receiving presumably very bad news, he caves in and gives his disinterested, craven son a call. After a bit of taciturn chit-chat, he can't bring himself to say anything about what's bothering him, and his son simply cuts off the conversation by saying he's busy. It's a sad and lonely moment, especially when one realizes what it must have taken for this tough old guy to even make the gesture to call his son in the first place.


Eastwood's Walt is the film's central character, but the dramatic tension in the story is generated by his next-door neighbors, a family of Hmong immigrants, among whom are the cheeky young Sue (Ahney Her) and her shy, withdrawn brother Thao (Bee Vang). Thao is being harassed by a local Hmong gang who want him to join up, and his initiation involves an aborted attempt to steal Walt's cherished 1972 Gran Torino. This incident only entrenches Walt's hostility towards his foreign neighbors, but when the gang returns to forcibly take Thao away one night, Walt intervenes, holding a rifle on the gang members until they have to flee. He's doing it only to get the "gooks" off his lawn, but he nevertheless becomes a hero to the neighborhood's Asian community, who see him as having stood up to the gang that terrorizes them. What happens next is predictable: Walt's icy hatred of others slowly begins to thaw, even as his racism retains its bite, and he takes the painfully awkward Thao under his wing, trying to teach him how to act like a man. Of course, Walt's conception of masculinity encompasses both expected societal standards (get a job and a girlfriend) along with some more outlandish stereotypical behavior; his attempt to teach Thao how to speak like a man is particularly hilarious. What's interesting, though, is that in keeping with the film's deconstruction of its stereotypes and genre archetypes, Walt's final act is a demonstration of the ways in which masculinity can expand beyond the limiting definition of the Dirty Harry-style tough guy, to encompass notions like sacrifice, friendship, character development, and measured thought rather than violent action.

Ultimately, Gran Torino is an interesting mess of a film, one that's hampered by its straightforward stereotyping and amateur performances: Her alternates between laughably bad and downright annoying, while Vang is only marginally better. The result is that too much of the film's weight falls on Eastwood's shoulders. He not only directs and acts, but he is forced to be the central presence in the film, the only actor present who can actually deliver a line naturally, let alone project a believable emotion. Eastwood's dominance of the film is so complete that he even growls out the first verse of the song that closes the film, a sweet love ballad to a Gran Torino, the kind of song Kowalski himself might sing, in an unguarded moment, while caressing the car's hood: "gentle now the tender breeze blows/ whispers through my Gran Torino/ whistling another tired song/ engine hums and bitter dreams grow/ heart locked in a Gran Torino/ it beats a lonely rhythm all night long." It's hard to imagine Eastwood expects anyone to take that seriously, and yet it's done with such sincerity, such heart behind it, that one feels bad for laughing. It's just another indication of the film's tonal confusion, its insistence on finding genuine drama in absurd genre clichés, its mingling of amateur acting, a hilariously inventive racist vocabulary, and melodramatic heartstring-tugging. It's an odd mix, one that shouldn't really work but nearly does in spite of itself.

10 comments:

Jason Bellamy said...

Nice job. I hope to get a review of this movie up later in the week, and my multiple criticisms will match yours in many ways. Then again, as pathetic (and I think that's the right word) as "Gran Torino" is, it's so accessible and forward-moving that I enjoyed it far more than at least 25 percent of the films I've seen this year. Which is another way of saying that as far as awful movies go, it's not so bad.

But as far as great films go ...

I'm amazed at all the critical/Hollywood-buzz gushing over Eastwood/"Gran Torino" that just might lead to some Oscar noms. Let me be clear: I'm not emotionally invested in the Oscars, except to the extent that I do enjoy it when great films/performances are justifiably recognized. But "Gran Torino"? I had hoped that all the undeserved praise for the similarly melodramatic "Flags Of Our Fathers" would be the last case of critics going ga-ga for their sacred cow. ("Letters From Iwo Jima," on the other hand, is terrific.) But if this leads to a Best Actor or Best Picture nom, that really might be an Academy low point. And that would be saying a lot.

Craig said...

This film looked ridiculous from the previews -- "Get off my lawn!" got a huge laugh -- and your review confirms my suspicions. But what do I know: Ed Gonzalez over at Slant claims one day we'll look back and compare it to John Ford's The Searchers. Ohhhkayyyy....

Ed Howard said...

Yea, I mean I'd be lying if I said the film wasn't incredibly enjoyable, because it is, in a weird way. But it's also incredibly ridiculous, and overly broad in its themes, and poorly acted by everyone but Eastwood, and prompted a lot of laughter. Actually, the audience I saw it with was so uproarious that I'd frequently miss the next line of dialogue, and though I was laughing too, I felt vaguely uncomfortable that what the film was so often prompting laughter at was Eastwood's racist language.

Tony Dayoub said...

I have to disagree with you all. This movie seems anachronistic because of its classical style of filmmaking that does hearken back to the days of Hawks and Ford. Yes, very straightforward, amusingly so at times, but also tight as a drum.

Eastwood's last one, Changeling had so much trouble structurally, lacking cohesion, and unfolding the multiple climaxes that generally plague some of his lesser works. But Gran Torino was a beautiful straight line presented in a manner which perfectly suited the straight-shooting character Eastwood plays.

Deconstructionist? Most definitely. The film inverts the usual tropes most Eastwood fans have come to expect from his movies.

And there's an argument to be made here that for once it is not the white man that comes and saves the insert-a-race-here outsiders. In the grand scheme of things, where it is Kowalski who is seeking redemption, it is ultimately he who is saved by the Hmong.

My own review will be up at 12:01am ET.

Daniel said...

Your thoughts on the movie line up with what I thought of the movie. I mean, it is ridiculous at points but I just couldn't help but love it. I agree it is definitely a deconstruction of Dirty Harry, just as Unforgiven is a deconstruction of The Man With No Name. While on the subject of Westerns, Gran Torino seems to be getting a lot of comparisons to Don Siegel's The Shootist, which also happened to be John Wayne's final role.

Grady Smith said...

I'm very impressed with your reviews! I just found your blog on blogsearch and I must say, it's great! (I'll forgive you for not having a Wall-E review... haha) WEll- I don't know how happy you'll be about it, but Gran Torino is actually doing quite well at the box office, based mostly on Eastwood's name. I just did a post about it on my blog. I'm glad I found your site!

Arun Kumar said...

I think I understand now how much of a role culture and location play in a person's reaction to a film, because I found the film enjoyable as a whole, and aside from the bad acting and some of the cliches that you mention I had absolutely no problem with it. Oh and I loved Eastwood in the film.

'Slumdog Millionaire' on the other hand, felt totally fake to me, especially the second half. It was a westerner's take on Mumbai, and living in India, I found some parts of the film (especially the portions where the actors speak english) quite laughable. Once the authenticity and believability of the characters were gone, I could never take them seriously again.

Dean Treadway said...

What a great blog!! I love your writing (though the long paragraphs sometimes are hard to read, but that's a minor point). You're really a terrific presence on the web. I'll be linking to you on http://filmicability.blogspot.com. I hope you'll return the gesture, if you feel the need.

I watched GRAN TORINO the other night and, as I do with most of Clint's films, I liked it very much. In some ways, it reminded me of THE SHOOTIST, John Wayne's last film, directed by Don Siegel (one of Eastwood's directorial heroes). It definitely felt like Eastwood's swansong as an actor. I don't think we'll see him onscreen again, but who knows?

I often mixed feelings regarding Eastwood's use of little-seen actors. On the one hand, I'm glad to see fresh, non-star faces. On the other, I'm often disappointed in their abilities to make me suspend disbelief. In the case of GRAN TORINO, I did find the boy who played Thao occasionally stiff. And the actors playing his children were almost as poor as the ones playing Meryl Streep's kids in THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY. However, I liked the girl who played Thao's sister; I thought she was funny and real.

However, Eastwood's performance is unassailable. I believe that much of the movie is intentionally funny; I don't think anyone is supposed to take the "Get off my lawn" line as anything but a joke. We all know about the fabled old men in our neighborhood's who've uttered the same line (I had one in mine back in Georgia, at least). But the laughs come from having EASTWOOD say it. That's one man's lawn you'd be off of posthaste. Thus, the laughs...

I saw GRAN TORINO falling into the same category as MILLION DOLLAR BABY: an old-fashioned story set in a time almost contemporary, but not quite. The two films seem to be set in an alternate universe; were it not for the casting and the muted colors, you could swear they were made sometime in the late fifties. Their stories are told with straightforward drive and brevity, utilizing old movie stereotypes to reveal WHY they're stereotypes in the first place (answer: because they work). I think Eastwood's characters in both films are ancient men disappointed with present-day mores and youthful rudeness. I recall now the scene where Walt watches an elderly lady across the street drop her groceries. Three asshole kids come by and make fun of her, and you can feel your blood (and Walt's blood) boil at the pure gall of it all. But then Thao comes by, and helps her retrieve her things and carries them in the house. This is very much like the scene where Morgan Freeman knocks the smart-assed young buck out after he bloodies a dumb kid who doesn't deserve it. In both instances, we're seeing the reactions of men who'd rather not live in a world like this. And, in both instances, we see these men do what they can about it.

As a middle-aged man myself, I can relate to this feeling. I suppose it's something we alll must go through--this feeling that the world has changed, and not for the better. Eastwood's movies (at least recently) exist to communicate this feeling to a presently-young generation who think they're "perfect" (as the group of teens called themselves on an episode of 60 MINUTES one time). Clint seems to think that they're far from perfect, and I agree. That a large percentage of goofy web denizens despise Eastwood tells me that he's hit a nerve that deserves to be drilled until dead.

coffee said...

Clint Eastwood used his outward crankiness to come across as tough and yet also heroic at the same time, well done i'd say

Anonymous said...

Walt Kowalski is NOT Dirty Harry Callahan.
He most closely resembles Gunnery Sergeant Tom Highway, the Korean and Vietnam vet in Heartbreak Ridge.