Gran Torino

It’s funny how nobody really seems to be in Gran Torino except Clint Eastwood. Oh, there’s dependable character actor John Carroll Lynch in a caustically funny three-scene bit as Clint’s barber. And there are various Hmong people as Clint’s neighbors, and some Americans as his disappointing family. But really there’s only Clint Eastwood, in what is said to be his swan song as an actor, as the irascible Korean War vet Walt Kowalski. Having retired from his auto-factory job and recently buried his wife, Walt pretty much hates everything except his ol’ dawg Daisy. He squints. He scowls. He growls. He waves guns around. The movie would be nowhere, absolutely nowhere, without Clint Eastwood.

This is a different case from, say, The Wrestler, which is inconceivable without Mickey Rourke but has a lot of other things going for it. Gran Torino has a script (by Nick Schenk, from a story by Schenk and Dave Johannson) that seems slavishly tailored to Clint’s mannerisms and range and iconic persona. It’s also the sort of amateurishly basic scenario that would’ve been laughed out of the offices of the notoriously schlocky Cannon Films in the ‘80s. The next-door Hmong kid Thao (Bee Vang) is intimidated by his cousin into joining a local gang. As an initiation, Thao is commanded to steal Walt’s prized Gran Torino. Walt catches him, and soon the kid is doing chores around Walt’s house at the behest of his old-school family. Walt, of course, warms to the kid, introduces him to the world of tools, teaches him how to be a Man.

You can feel how dusty this all is, right? And there’s even a scene where ol’ Walt ambles next door, tastes his first Hmong food, and discovers he kind of likes these people. (Prior to that, he’d been given to such charming epithets as “gook” and “zipperhead.”) Awful as Gran Torino is on paper, iffy as most of the supporting performances are (except for John Carroll Lynch), it’s a valentine to Clint fans, of whom I am one. I don’t think the man has the Midas touch — I was baffled when Million Dollar Baby got wreathed in praise and trophies. His filmography since the masterpiece Unforgiven has been erratic (I’d like to hear the Johnny-come-latelies who declare Eastwood a genius try to defend Space Cowboys). But I enjoy Eastwood’s clean directorial style and his sandpapery, disdainful screen persona, and that’s about all Gran Torino showcases.

With Eastwood in the role, what could’ve played as simple-minded ascends to mythology. (Look at any of the scenes without him in them — pure amateur hour.) You could say that about Unforgiven, too, but that had a brilliant script and Gene Hackman and Morgan Freeman. Unforgiven was meant as a deconstruction of (and maybe an atonement for) the pitiless gunslingers on which Eastwood built his career. Gran Torino reads like an elegy — they don’t make men (movie stars) like Walt (Clint) any more. It’s utter sap on that level, but Eastwood plays Walt with a farewell-tour gratitude, like John Wayne in The Shootist. These meta-macho films, which appeal on about the same level as a sports legend stepping onto the field one more time before retirement, are as much about our pasts with the grizzled old stars as about the movies themselves. On that level, Gran Torino is often touching.

A late-inning shot of Walt is horrendously on-the-nose and has been laughed out of better movies than this. Not even Clint can redeem that shot; it’s special pleading, and he should’ve had the sense as director to go for something subtler (or at least less screamingly symbolic). But then nothing about Gran Torino is especially subtle. It’s the cranky old man rediscovering the warmth of family and a sense of purpose when that family is threatened. I wish the damn thing were better, more capably acted across the board, more smartly written; I wish it earned its likely place in film history as Eastwood’s final onscreen bow, and I wish it earned the feelings that brings up in many of us.

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One Comment on “Gran Torino”

  1. coffee Says:

    Clint Eastwood did a great job of using his outward crankiness to come across as mean as well as somehow heroic this newest film of his


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