Gran Torino

January, 2009, Thriller

Directed by:Clint Eastwood

Starring:Clint Eastwood and Bee Vang

Clint Eastwood’s latest, (he works once again on both sides of the camera) constitutes the latest chapter in one of Hollywood’s more remarkable  film careers. At 78, this thin, grizzled actor-turned-director-turned-producer-turned film-score composer still possesses the ability to surprise audiences. He’s managed to morph from passable actor to an often commanding one while simultaneously settling into the director’s chair, capping the last decade with a hat-trick of fine self-directed performances (Unforgiven, A Perfect World, Million Dollar Baby) in the twilight of a career which began with little evidence of the considerable talents he’s subsequently displayed. Son of a steel worker and college drop-out, Eastwood’s come by his success through a series of projects which over time have established him as one of the very few members of the Hollywood establishment who can rightly be described with that loftiest of French soubriquets - - auteur. It’s a pleasure to note that Torino adds further proof to an already considerable legend.

Eschewing the six-guns and police-issue Magnums which have made him famous, Eastwood here plays Walt Kowalski, a retired Detroit auto worker and Korean war vet who nurses a host of racial/ethic prejudices and a dark secret with which he keeps the world - - and a pair of estranged sons to whom he barely speaks - - at bay. Old and cranky enough to speak his mind without the slightest regard for how his remarks will be taken by those at whom they’re directed, Walt lives in beer-drinking isolation, nursing a long list of grudges against the South Asian immigrants who’ve turned his previously all white, working-class neighborhood into a place of dangerous confrontation. When a gang-member recruiting drive at the house next to his spills over into Walt’s front yard, he uses a snarl and loaded carbine to drive off a quartet of tattooed thugs, an act destined to have unanticipated, life-altering effects on everyone involved.

His grateful neighbors, the Lor’s, are Hmong; they respond to Walt’s unintended gesture of assistance by convincing the other Vietnamese families in the neighborhood that Walt’s their savoir. Despite his repeated protests of disinterest in establishing a relationship with anyone, Walt finds himself drawn to the Lor’s brightly self-assured daughter Sue and her lonely, withdrawn brother Thao, whom Walt dismissively nicknames “Toad”. Little by little, Walt warms to the hard-working but exotic immigrant community he’s surrounded by; slowly, their quiet dignity and uncomplaining vulnerability breaks down Walt’s carefully constructed barriers - - and it doesn’t hurt that they cook much better than he does… 

When Thao attempts to steal Walt’s car as part of his gang initiation, the boy’s widowed mother forces him to do yard chores and house repairs for Walt to salvage the family’s honor. In the course of working together, the two gradually form a bond which threatens the gang’s control over their reluctant recruit. When Walt violently discourages their efforts to further intimidate Thao, they retaliate with a vicious attack that offers Walt an opportunity for a reprisal that will defend Thao’s family and provide redemption for an event in his haunted past.

Nick Schenk’s script (for which he’s already received the best original screenplay award from The National Board of Review) not only generates the requisite tension among its characters, but does so with considerable humor; Walt’s racism isn’t funny, but the boorish manner in which he consistently displays it provides ample opportunity for laughter and Eastwood’s ability to riff on his “Dirty Harry” image in this warm-hearted story suggests a comedic affability the actor hasn’t had sufficient opportunity to demonstrate. 

But it’s the unanticipated plot twist which ends the film that speaks most tellingly about Eastwood’s capacity for challenging his audience. After more than 40 years of starring and directing movies in which mayhem is presented as inescapable and its moral implications ignored, Eastwood’s most recent directorial efforts, (Unforgiven, Mystic River, Flags of Our Fathers & Letters From Iwo Jima) contain powerful reflections on the meaning and implications of violence and the irreparable damage it inflicts. Gran Torino doesn’t achieve the status of those films, but it its own modest way, it forces audiences to reevaluate Eastwood’s hard-boiled image in a refreshingly off-beat way. 

` Few actors are given the opportunity, near the end of long and successful careers as box-office stars, to tackle roles which reflect both their diminished physical attractiveness and the inevitable effects of aging. Lately, an eglegatic tone has crept into Eastwood’s work, a willingness to jettison his heroic persona in order to explore the conflicting implications of his characters’ choices and the bitter results which flow from being forced to make difficult decisions. (Eastwood’s entered a phase of his career that begs comparison with that of Burt Lancaster, whose final leading roles, (Go Tell The Spartans, Atlantic City, Local Hero) came in films which not only displayed an uncharacteristic vulnerability but simultaneously invited audiences to see him stripped of the aura provided by his early screen successes.) When a worried Catholic priest tells Walt “I hope you go in peace” as he prepares for the final confrontation of Gran Torino, Eastwood flashes that famous sardonic grin of his and replies “Father, I am at peace”. It’s a line that summarizes not only this straight-forward, crisply entertaining movie but also a career that offers Eastwood’s fans much to admire.

The verdict? A wonderfully enjoyable entertainment that serves as an unorthodox Lifetime Achievement Award for one of Hollywood’s most durable talents.        

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