Dec 11, 2008

On Gran Torino

As topical and urgent as anything he has ever made, it perhaps comes as no surprise that Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino, a film that serves as both an elegy for the past and a reckoning for the future from an American movie icon who is only a couple of years from octogenarian status, is some kind of American masterpiece.

The seventy-eight year old director, producer, star and film scorer leaps headlong into this character and screenwriter Nick Schenk’s scenario informed in many ways by his previous screen personas; he glides on thematic turf as elemental as any he’s dealt with and as well tread too, the ever expanding melting pot of America’s multicultural present and the oncoming rush towards old age his primary motifs. Yet he emerges with something fresh and bold, economical and self assured, personal and deeply touching.

Walt Kowalski is a newly widowed Korean war veteran and former Ford assembly line worker, grumpy, scarred, individualistic and quick witted, who has long lived with a deep seated, if generally non-malicious and casual racism. He sits on his porchs and stews, offering bitter commentary to his yellow labrador Daisy over cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon. He’s the lone white remnant in a Detroit community of wood framed, two story houses that is largely being seeded to Asian immigrants. He refers to ethnic minorities almost exclusively in slurs and long taboo vernacular that is generally genial (and returned enthusiastically) amongst his European extracted contractor and service industry friends (the local Italian barber, the Irish carpenter, etc.), but carries the strong weight of the pejorative for just about everyone else.

His sons, especially Mitch (Brian Haley), who drives a foreign made SUV, uses a Bluetooth cell phone earpiece and generally disapproves of his father’s spiteful attitude about life and lack of sophistication, want to put him out to pasture. Mitch, who flouts his a maudlin wife, spoiled, redheaded child and sterile exurban home, begins to delicately circulate the idea of the old man considering abandoning his house and entering a nursing home.

His young parish priest Janovich (Christopher Carley) attempts to penetrate some of Walt’s wounds, acting upon the final wishes of his wife, but Walt only mocks and dismisses his offers of council, even while he remains struck by Janovich’s observation that Mr. Kowalski seems to know much about death, having been so intimately involved and shaped by it wrath as a young soldier, but little about life.

The changes in Walt community are ones he largely wants to avoid, but as he’s lured into the troubles of the new, yellow family next door (“barbarians” he calls them as he watches them move in), he is forced to reevaluate both his prejudices. After a local nihilistic Hmong gang puts up the neighbor’s shy and studious teenage grandson Thao (Bee Vang) to steal Kowalski’s vintage Red 1972 Gran Torino, Kowalski’s prized possession, within which he personally installed the steering column while on the assembly line, Walt emerges from his house with his gun drawn and forces the youngsters to flee. When the gang returns to confront Thao, he threatens the dangerous young men and quickly becomes embroiled in the conflict between the a courteous, traditional Asian family that has moved into the decaying house next door and the street gangs which terrorize them.

After it becomes clear to him that the terminally sissified Thao was put up to the attempted crime, Walt takes a special interest in him and his sister Sue (Ahney Her), being drawn into the world of Hmong immigrants that slowly begins to fill a void in his largely isolated existence. Soon however, a terrible turn of events forces Walt to consider raising arms in order to save his young charges from violent reprisals on the part of the local hoodlums. Or an unthinkable sacrifice.

More so than any other major American movie director, Mr. Eastwood seems in touch with the realistic struggles of young minorities coming of age in troubled neighborhoods. This film, from an icon of the American right whose vision grows steadily more liberal humanist as time wares on, has more to say about the ennui and terror many American live with in violent urban neighborhoods than anything Spike Lee or Lance Hammer have made.

Playing a man who time has passed by once again, he pushes himself as a performer to the very edges of his formidable talent, summoning a performance that verges on camp in the film’s often comedic earlier phases, but one which grows into something of a revelation by the film’s final, heartbreaking passages.

Never one of grand theatrics and hyperbole, Eastwood imbues his film, set in a largely decaying community, with a spirit that one would call “independent” if his film wasn’t bankrolled, as almost all of his previous films have been (save his misstep from earlier this season, Changeling), by Warner Brothers. If the film makes me alittle wistful, it is not only because you reach a point while watching Gran Torino when you wish you could remain in the comfort of these characters and this director for several more hours, but because it also feels like a solemn, soulful and altogether triumphant goodbye from a master screen presence, one who despite his age and much like his unforgettable Walt Kowalski, hasn’t stopped seeing the world with new eyes.