Friday, 22 January 2010

Gran Torino (2008)

Country: USA

The Clint Eastwood angry old man persona is dusted down again for what seems to be Eastwood’s final curtain call in front of the camera. Eastwood’s Walt Kowalski a bigoted veteran of the Korean War who never really gets beyond the stage of caricature is emblematic of the conservative values of a generation of Americans who find themselves in the throes of displacement in the age of the multi-cultural melting pot. By the end of the film Kowalski has, somewhat unrealistically, undergone a surprising liberalisation and become an unlikely martyr for a small community of Cambodian immigrants. Kowalski is far more entertaining when he growls insults from atop his right wing throne of ignorance and dismisses the feckless church with the contempt it deserves. But Kowalski does as much sermonising as the wet behind-the-ears priest, and his character trajectory ultimately seems unfeasible and somewhat populist in the age of Obama. However Eastwood continues to explore, with some measure of emotional success, the process of getting old. A thematic current that flows through all of his films from Unforgiven (1992) onwards. Kowalski’s absorption into a liberal framework at the films conclusion is a final acknowledgement by Eastwood that his days as a subversive icon of machismo are well and truly over. There is simply nowhere for the Eastwood persona to go on screen anymore.

The narrative of Gran Torino has a nice circularity - beginning and ending with a funeral. The first is an opportunity to set up the ingratitude and selfishness of Kowalski’s own family, and the second is an opportunity to show that Kowalski has been absorbed into the family of the Hmong immigrants. They act as a surrogate family, with Thao and Sue acting as surrogate children. But despite Kowalski’s ultimate act of selfless martyrdom his own family still seek to feather their own nests. It paints a rather depressing vista of white middle class America. The hope in this film, without a doubt, lies with the immigrant population of the neighbourhood. The film sees the future here, and there is a definite sense of a torch being handed over. In this case the torch is Kowalski’s 1972 Gran Torino. As characteristic of American industrial endeavour as the stars and stripes are of Kowalski’s conservatism. The car acts as a metaphor for cultural acceptance, a final merging of America and its seething cultural diversity. Unfortunately though, like Kowalski, the few gangs we see in the neighbourhood never rise above caricature’s, and the film singularly fails to explore, in any meaningful way, the motivations and concerns of these people. The result is that the whole film seems very one sided.

If age is one thematic trend that unites Eastwood’s films from 1992 onwards, then violence is the other. The attitude to violence in Gran Torino is somewhat contradictory. The film concludes with a message of pacifism and diplomacy. The death of Kowalski functioning as a messianic crucifixion metaphor. An act that unites community and culture. But at the same time Kowalski embraces with gusto the violence that he has the opportunity to mete out against the gang. Kowalski isn’t slow in breaking open his gun collection, and Eastwood assumes Dirty Harry (1971) mode. Unfortunately Clint comes perilously close to lampooning his screen iconography, and mercifully we don’t see the 78 year old attempting to take out the gang with Josey Wales like heroics.

Where the film lacks subtlety at the level of dialogue, it more than makes up for in its presentation of Kowalski’s Hmong neighbours. The characters are well drawn, and Kowalski eventually gazes at their closeness and their traditions with barely disguised envy. An envy that turns to rage when his son suggests packing him off too a care home. The performances from the young cast are excellent, and it is only Eastwood’s teeth gnashing rage that unbalances proceedings. The film also suffers from some pacing issues, and at times feels laboured and out of breath - rather like Kowalski, when he attempts to move a fridge on his own. In some ways as a finale to Eastwood’s acting career Gran Torino seems very appropriate, but I suspect it will come to be remembered as lesser Eastwood, and an unfitting climax to a truly remarkable acting career.

© Shaun Anderson 2010


  1. The dialogue of Gran Torino is some of the worst, on-the-nose crap I've heard in such a big Hollywood production, and the slow-motion sequence of Clint dropping his coffee mug is down right embarrassing and looks like something out of a high-school production.

    I wouldn't stop at saying it's one of Clint's lesser films. Gran Torino sucks balls!

  2. I think you're being perhaps a little harsh, I'll stick with lesser Eastwood. I do think though that if GRAN TORINO is to be Clint's last acting role, he's departing from the acting world with a murmur rather than a bang.

  3. Fair enough.

    About going out with a murmur though.... that's basically what's happening to all the legends from the old days, which are still alive: DeNiro, Pachino, Hoffman and now Eastwood...

    Still, although the fact that movie quality, and our appreciation for such, has been steadily plummeting for the last 60 year (as proved in this nice graph ) you can't really blame the actors for it. Not only is it (usually) not their fault for having to work with lesser material, but also, these guys have delivered such greatness, and are of such tremendous stature, that it's virtually impossible for them to top, or even come to the same levels, as what they produced in their younger years.

    I mean; The Good and the Bad and the Ugly is such an amazing film on every level, there's no way Eastwood will ever star in anything that's even in the same league again. Unforgiven might come close, but still can't compete.

    The man simply became greater than himself, or anyone else for that matter. All hail Clint.

  4. I don't think it is a coincidence though that Clint's reduction of decent acting roles since UNFORGIVEN has gone hand in hand with the increased visibility and critical acceptance (including several Oscar successes) of his directing. So I don't really agree that Clint is in decline at all. Of course we all know that Clint was directing excellent films in the 1970's, but the last ten years or so has seen a unanimous and universal praise of his films.

    Just a quick note on THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY - I have to admit it's not even my favourite of Leone's DOLLARS trilogy - I've always preferred FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE. A few other films in which Clint starred but didn't direct I think are equally impressive - COOGAN'S BLUFF, DIRTY HARRY, THE BEGUILED, ESCAPE FROM ALCATRAZ...and most of all the brilliant and underappreciated TIGHTROPE.

    Cheers for the comment Tiger :-)

  5. Ah, I have actually not seen Tightrope. Will definitely check it out soon. Thanks! =)


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