Monday, January 19, 2009

On the Big Screen: GRAN TORINO (2008)

Clint Eastwood returns to spread more beams of cinematic joy in theaters across the nation with his second release of 2008. I speak ironically, of course, since the arrival of an Eastwood film in recent years, at least since Mystic River in 2003, has been more like an eclipse of the moon. The successive gut-punches of Million Dollar Baby and Flags of Our Fathers established Eastwood as the feel-bad director of our time, a status hardly challenged by the more heroic narrative of Letters From Iwo Jima. The old man seems to have gone into overdrive, putting out six films in the last six years. If he's inherited his mother's longevity, and if he feels like following in Manoel de Olveira's footsteps, we could have a lot more from him yet.

I'm in the apparent minority in preferring Flags to Letters out of the Iwo Jima films. While Letters is the more conventional and, as I said, more heroic film, and is marred by some mawkish moments, Flags is a kind of masterpiece in its non-linear construction, its debunking attitude toward the "Greatest Generation" and its brutal denial of closure in never showing the end of the battle. I didn't get out to see Changeling, but it sounded like more along the same grim lines from Eastwood. Like many people, it seems, I was more willing to spend money to see the man himself in front of the camera.

People were quick to try and characterize Gran Torino as "Dirty Harry in retirement," but Eastwood has something else in mind, as becomes obvious pretty quickly. It hits you with a slap of audacity once you see him spit tobacco and the rat-a-tat drum beats rumble over scenes when he menaces hapless gangbangers. This isn't Harry Callahan in retirement, but Josey Wales in the 21st century. Memories of The Outlaw Josey Wales provide a map to how Eastwood wants us to interpret the story. Walt Kowalski is a man alone, convinced that his world is dead. He's ready to make war on the whole rest of the world, or at least hole up in his house apart from occasional forays to the veterans' hall or the barber shop, but he finds himself almost unconsciously building a new community as he grudgingly allows himself to connect to his Hmong immigrant neighbors and teach Thao (or "Toad") his old-school values. His climactic confrontation with the gangstas at their clubhouse is an echo of Wales's confrontation with Ten Bears, as Walt proves willing to sacrifice himself to save his little adopted community of decent people.But there's a crucial, possibly a cruel difference. Wales wins over Ten Bears by convincing him that, if his word of death is true, so his word of life is true. But Gran Torino has been telling us that Walt Kowalski may not have a word of life to offer, or may not think he does. If so, Walt can only do the next best thing....

Actually, I think that Gran Torino is too neatly plotted for its own good. Its resolution looks more like the logic of a screenwriter than a natural outcome of events. The end is telegraphed by Walt's contracting the infamous Movie Disease. The signs are all too obvious for trained observers. An otherwise healthy man pauses for a moment to cough up blood into a handkerchief, and is otherwise healthy until the next outbreak. The Movie Disease doesn't stop Walt from beating the snot out of a fat punk in order to set up the final sequence of catastrophes, but it does force him to ask Thao's help in moving a freezer up from his basement. At other points, however, the movie rings true about aging, particularly in Walt's refusal of neighborly attention and his apparent loss of appetite before he learns to appreciate Hmong cuisine.

Many people perceive Gran Torino as Eastwood's latest attempt to win a Best Actor Oscar. If that's the case, Clint might have a beef with his director. This film strikes me as a step backwards from Million Dollar Baby for Eastwood as an actor. Especially early on, he's far too blatant about Walt's grunts and growls of disapproval about things and his habit of muttering to himself. I would have guessed Walt to be a more taciturn or stoic sort. In any event, the grumbling gets on one's nerves. Eastwood is much better as his character warms to Thao's family and in his banter with his barber. On the other hand, the worst scene in the movie is probably the comic sequence in which Walt and the barber try to teach Thao how to talk like a real man, including the ball-busting banter that Walt applies to almost everyone in his life.

Walt's bits with the barber actually throw the issue of his racism into confusion. Our hero has issues with Asians and calls the Hmong (without knowing or caring at first who they are exactly) every anti-Asian slur in the book. You're primed to think him a plain hater, but then we see Walt using similar epithets in pure fun with the barber, who gives as good as he receives. So going back to the Hmong, does he hate them as Asians (he tells the gangstas, "We used to stack you shits five feet high and use you for sandbags.") or are his epithets just his way of keeping everyone at a safe distance? He never does stop using them even after he's clearly become friendly with Thao and his sister. He actually warms to the sister first because she's willing to talk back at him. There's a charming moment when she introduces Walt to friends at a party as "the white devil," to which Walt responds, "That's right, I'm the white devil," -- which I suppose might be as good as "the grey rider" as a description of Josey Wales. My point is, Gran Torino doesn't seem to be so much about a man overcoming racism, as early reports suggested, as it is about a bristlingly defensive, isolated man given a last chance, after having failed with his own family, to reach out to people outside his shell. Moreover, the racist epithets seem to serve, specifically when Asians are concerned, as a way to shield himself from guilt feelings over a war crime he confesses late in the movie.

Walt's testy chats with the local priest, who was tasked by the late Mrs. Kowalski to look after her husband, sound at first like echoes of the Eastwood character's irreverent scenes in Million Dollar Baby, as if Eastwood himself enjoys performing in that mode. But Gran Torino seems to grant the clergy more wisdom than the earlier film, since the young priest elicits Walt's admission that he knows more about death than about life. The films are alike, however, in leaving little room for consolation or salvation for Eastwood's characters. As with Thao's sister, the priest wins Walt's respect by standing up to him, but he can't dissuade Walt from making the movie's climactic decision, and is unable to thwart Walt's plan once he has an inkling of it. This doesn't seem to be a reflection on religion, but a reflection of the script's stubborn insistence on a certain outcome in order to make a point that isn't necessarily clear.

On one level, Gran Torino only makes sense in the context of Clint Eastwood's career. Eastwood is a darling of auteurist critics who see films as expressions of their directors' personalities. To my knowledge, he's never tried to write his own movies, but he's taken more steps in recent years to put a personal stamp on his product, most notably his Chaplinesque determination to write his own music. In this way, we're supposed to see what happens to Walt as some kind of comment on the Clint Eastwood movie persona, a statement on whether the type can flourish in the 21st century. Because Eastwood seems to be self-consciously chasing Oscars, he's probably encouraging this approach to the new film. My big problem with Gran Torino, which makes me rank it behind Million Dollar Baby and the Iwo Jima films, is that it muses on the "end" of "Clint Eastwood" at the expense of what might have been a more plausible ending for Walt Kowalski. But even a relatively minor Eastwood film from this late period has more going for it than many other films from other hands. Compared to much of what's out there, Eastwood's film looks like socialist realism, and is refreshing for that reason. The Eastwood character may end up somewhat unreal, but he's been placed in a convincingly real world and is ably supported by a mostly unfamiliar cast. I can definitely recommend the film to fans of Eastwood the director and actor as a kind of work or art, but laymen may not appreciate the film as much on its own terms.


Rev. Fred Phantom said...

[This isn't Harry Callahan in retirement, but Josey Wales in the 21st century]

That is reason alone for me to see this. I've been an Eastwood fan since I was old enough to talk. Watching him become such an incredible director over the years has been a trip. So many were willing to write him off back in the 70's--the man w/no name has come a long way.

I don't go to see many films but this one and The Wrestler may make me fork over the bucks very soon.

Samuel Wilson said...

Thanks for writing, Rev. I hope my analogy doesn't lead you to overestimate the body count in Gran Torino, but any Eastwood fan will get what I meant once they see the movie.

Soiled Sinema said...

Eastwood doesn't need a body count to intimidate. Good write up