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Clint Eastwood Retrospective: GRAN TORINO

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About four months ago, I embarked on a massive project: to catalog my thoughts on all the Clint Eastwood films in a new, 10-film Blu-ray set, as well as to cover any Eastwood projects outside of the set that shared the same overarching, thematic concerns.

As of today, this project remains unfinished.

I’m going to take it up again, beginning with new, never-before-published reviews of Mystic River and Gran Torino.  Hopefully, Round Two will go over better than Round One did.

If anyone is interested in reading those earlier installments, please visit HERE.  The link will take you to my personal blog, where there are already five or six (I think) capsule reviews.

Hope you enjoy these!

If ever one had any doubts about the power of melodrama, I direct you to Exhibit A, Gran Torino.

Everything about this movie is ham-handed and obvious.  Let’s list the clichés, shall we?

  • Central premise: A racist old man learns about tolerance.
  • Probably should mention this: his beloved (and inexplicably faithful, when you consider what an unpleasant monster her husband is) wife has just died.
  • His blood relatives are a bunch of money-hungry vultures.
  • His adoptive new family, the Hmongs next door who teach him that Lesson in Tolerance and Racial Understanding, is second only to Jesus Christ himself in their constant display of compassion and inner peace.
  • He’s constantly shadowed by a Catholic priest dying to save his soul.
  • That’s not mawkish enough?  How ‘bout this for you—both Old Man Racist and his Beatific Hmong Neighbor family live in an area so crippled by gang violence it makes Grand Theft Auto look like “Sesame Street.”
  • And! The old fart’s history of violent behavior in the Korean War makes him a perfect champion for his cuddly Hmongs!
  • But wait!  There’s MORE!  Not to invoke JC again, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t make a weensy reference to the Christ-like sacrifice at the end.

The whole thing, on paper, reads like a conflagration of Dirty Harry, American History X, The Blind Side, with maybe a little Do the Right Thing for color, and all filtered through the prism of an issue of AARP Magazine.  It’s just the thing to make you want to put a gun to your temple.

So, naturally, I was extra-surprised to find myself unequivocally and un-ironically loving this ungainly beast.

Gran Torino is, without question, the strongest and most effective Eastwood production since Million Dollar Baby.  For a film littered with so many potential problems, it never steps wrong, never overreaches, never disappoints.  You know when they say, “They Don’t Make ‘Em Like This Anymore,” and you grumble at the overused bullheaded clichédom of such a statement?  Well, in Gran Torino’s case, they really don’t.

It’s Clint’s direction that makes this film.  Too often I find his point-and-shoot aesthetic at odds with the nature of the films he often makes.  The man loves to tackle hot button, difficult issues (it’s a testament to his nature that Eastwood’s films have grown more thematically provocative the older he’s grown), but his no-frills, easy-going shooting style can leech the energy from the subject matter.

Here, it cuts the treacle.  This film should be intolerable.  It should drown you in syrup.  It should make cutting yourself seem chic.  Instead, it downplays the sap.  Everything unfolds deliberately, at a pace more akin to life’s, so that the even the more maudlin twists and turns carry great weight.  Even the much-criticized acting of Clint’s Hmong co-stars works in this context; its very amateurism doesn’t carry the stink of “performance.”  We believe in the melodrama because of Clint’s heroic refusal to emphasize it as such.

That goes double for his performance.  In maybe anyone else’s hands, Walt Kowalski would flash a wry twinkle behind every racist utterance, a signifier (to us) that he’s really a good guy, that he will redeem himself, that nothing hurtful he says need concern us too much.  Clint doesn’t let us, or Walt, off the hook that easy.  He simply presents this man, free of editorializing and grandstanding, and a funny thing happens.

We begin to fear him.

Stripped to the bone, Walt Kowalski is lonely, confused, devastated by his wife’s passing, but he’s also clearly damaged, unpredictable, dangerous.  This is a man who has done horrible things, and it’s not his struggling with them that haunts us most—it’s his willingness to re-enact them.

He’s a coiled python, ready to attack, and even though the conventions of the genre still hold true (Nick Schenk’s script is as formulaic as Eastwood’s handling of it is unorthodox), Eastwood’s total commitment to this monster makes his emotional arc as much of a shock to us as they are to Walt.  It’s a great performance, and if, in fact, it is Clint’s last, then what a way to go out.

Gran Torino has that special movie magic; its stature grows in your head long after the credits roll.  And Eastwood’s blending of subtle and melodramatic, of macrocosm and microcosm, of sacred and the profane, the film is the perfect encapsulation of Eastwood’s total body of work.  It’s not often you see a career retrospective encased in one film.

Gran Torino shows a movie star fully engaged with his image, and willing to develop it in ways both familiar and profound.