Sunday, January 4, 2009
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.