Gran Torino (2008)

August 15, 2009 § Leave a comment

At 78 years old when this film was shot, Clint Eastwood is a blazing-eyed, elderly version of the persona he has reproduced from time to time since A Fistful of Dollars (1964). Directed and co-produced by Eastwood, it’s an interesting film before the first frame has been shown, simply because it feels like an attempt to give his long acting career a coda, of sorts. 

The film itself has mixed results — as Walt Kowalski, a permanently grumpy veteran that dislikes all the different ethnicity in the neighbourhood, Eastwood can make “Get off my lawn,” sound like a death threat. But as Kowalski starts to get to know the neighbours and develop something of a community around him, it becomes clear some of the supporting cast of younger actors don’t seem terribly comfortable in their roles. The film could’ve been a joke, but it isn’t thanks to Eastwood’s solid central performance — it’s a shame some of the other performances are so wobbly. The writing is a little wobbly too. All the material about how some of the younger generation lacks reverence and appreciation (particularly in the Kowalski family) struck me as valid, but the film is overly heavy-handed about it. The central themes are clear — that beneath ethnic differences and the turmoil of certain daily struggles, we sometimes have far more in common than we think. And yet, there’s a scene that feels like something leftover from a Dirty Harry film, a scene where Eastwood is able to easily diffuse a situation, but only because he’s armed. It’s a contradiction at the heart of many American films, but it seems a little more pronounced when the main character is a gun-wielding 78 year old man.  In short, the film mixes heartwarming moments with head-scratching ones.  

Eastwood has had a fascinating career.  Aside from the films he directed, he’s among thos actors that became an American icon. Dirty Harry (1971) is a stylish and entertaining film, but also very conservative at heart — at it’s core it knocks the pesky civil rights that get in the way of a good cop blowing away someone that deserves it, and there’s even a scene that manages to suggest it’s common sense for police to shoot first and ask questions later. Generally a supporter of Republican politicians, Eastwood endorsed McCain in the recent presidential election. And yet, this is the man who directed the award-winning Unforgiven (1992), where as aging gunfighter William Munny, he has the lines “It’s a hell of a thing killing a man. You take away everything he’s ever had, and everything he’s ever gonna have.” And in A Perfect World (1993) also directed by Eastwood, there’s a quick scene of a rifle that seems designed to make the viewer hate it, considering the character that was just killed.

Perhaps it’s just fair to say Eastwood is… complicated. It’s a career that almost seems to unintentionally represent a nation accepting, but then beginnng to reconsider its attachment to guns. Even aside from the gun issues, there’s the much-admired car as central image, at at time we’re finally increasingly aware that sustainable living will be key to our survival. It may not be entirely fair to impose all this on the film, but I can’t help but think of it. Gran Torino is a curiously transitional early twenty-first century film: nostalgic even as it’s progressive, sincere but dated. Judging by the reviews on amazon and elsewhere, Americans loved it. What the rest of the world might appreciate about it is that it could be the final acting bow from a man with a remarkable career. And maybe everyone recognizes somehow that it’s a film about how the country is changing, or needs to change, even if it stars a man who grew up in a very different America.

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