Monday, January 5, 2009

Gran Torino ***

Director: Clint Eastwood
Cast: Clint Eastwood
Christopher Carley, Bee Vang, Ahney Her

There is a famous exercise most aspiring actors go through during school where they are asked to emulate an animal; you would've thought that's what Clint Eastwood was doing during the first part of "Gran Torino" where like an angry doberman he barks, growls and throws disdainful glances at everyone.
Eastwood plays Walt Kowalski, a Korea War veteran and recent widower who has made sure his dog Daisy is the only being who likes to be in his company.
During his wife's funeral one of his sons claims "there's not anything anyone can do that won't disappoint the old man". Call this screenplay economics as it sums up Walt's entire history for us but also makes sure we get into the mood for what results a bizarre concoction made out of standard classic Hollywood filmmaking, an icon's salute to himself and a vastly entertaining piece that also has a thing or two to say about the world we live in.
Besides having a bad relationship with his sons, Walt also happens to be a racist who complains about the "chinks" who move next door to him and calls his Black neighbors "spooks".
His bigotry doesn't help when he becomes hero to the Hmong family after accidentally saving one of its members, the young, shy Thao (Vang) from gang members trying to get him to join them and steal Walt's Gran Torino from his garage.
As means of payback the family provides Walt with gifts he eventually stops refusing and also offer Thao works for him until he condones his misdeed.
The unlikely duo bonds as Walt becomes mentor to Thao under the constant threat of the vengeful gang and Walt's own demons.
In a manner "Gran Torino" is a simple film in the tradition of something like "Going My Way", there's even Carley as baby faced Catholic priest, Father Janovich, who has beer with his "flock" and often visits Walt in order to get him to go to confession and fulfill the late Mrs. Kowalski's last wish.
Then again, Clint plays someone more like Dirty Harry, you simply don't want to run into him at night, who spits after he makes an ugly comment and keeps his rifle next to him to put things in their place.
His combination of genres and iconographies is sometimes hard to swallow, especially when as a director he chooses to trust narration and obviousness more than his images.
But this is after all a Clint Eastwood film and soon he has pulled out his real intentions to deliver a socially conscious tale he tells like this because it's the best way he knows how.
And to our surprise he makes it work.
Perhaps you can't teach an old dog new tricks, which is why those who choose to do so will find Eastwood's performance here a variation of what he's always done and really they're not to blame because that's precisely what he does.
But somehow with his weathered face and oak of a body he musters up a truly beautiful performance, one that would break your heart if you weren't afraid he'd try to tear it out of your chest first.
Taking some of the most memorable traits of his repertoire of characters, he grabs a very specific idea of masculinity and, despite its dislikeability and obsoleteness, makes it work to his advantage.
If you find yourself laughing at Walt's awful racist remarks it's not because Eastwood believes in them, but because Walt does and by staying true to his character, Clint the director points out how we've come to accept certain things from the media which we see as normal even if they're pure intolerance.
When we see the way Walt's family treats him it may be because the character has earned it, but in a way we also see how the younger generations have lost respect and care for their elders.
Somehow we don't fully blame Walt for wanting to prove he's still alive. When you add to this an inner search for meaning, the character becomes nothing like what'd expected him to be.
Eastwood has dealt with spirituality, especially Catholicism, in the past ("Million Dollar Baby" was a meditation on the search for lost faith) and here he wonders if you can escape the hands of this presumed God.
When Walt befriends the people he thought he'd hate, is the film implying that God put this opportunity in his way so that he could atone for his sins?
"Nothing's fair" affirms Walt to Father Janovich and this is never more true than in Eastwood's particular vision of justice.
As the film moves towards its climax, he chooses not the best or worst way to end it, but the only option he finds after exploring what lies beneath even "justified" acts of violence.
Damaged from the war, we come to wonder if Walt is a premonitory vision of the young boys coming home from Irak, "killing a man is awful" confesses Walt to Thao.
It takes Walt the whole movie to move from the illusory world he lives in, the one where racial remarks are perceived as harmless and life seemed like his to conquer; the time and place where he got his Gran Torino.
That he does so without recurring to facile solutions and sentimental enlightenment, but actually stating that not even he's sure he's doing it the best way speaks tons for Eastwood the legend.
Those who complain that he gets away with whatever senile wishes he wants in this film are completely missing the point.
Not only is Eastwood one of the only people who would get the financing and support to do this, but he's also one of the few who would take such a harsh, sometimes parodic look at himself all in the service of a message he isn't obligated to deliver.
He knows that with his kind of power, also comes responsibility.

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