Saturday, January 31, 2009

438 - Gran Torino review

No one other than Clint Eastwood could make a film like “Gran Torino” work the way it does. There’s something about the awe his image inspires from an audience, the mainstream trust that accompanies his name, the way his films do what they need to without apology, if not always well or subtly.

His character in “Grin Torino” is Walt Kowalski, a Korean War vet and retired autoworker. We first meet Walt at his wife’s funeral, attended by children and grandchildren who all view him as a miserable old codger best left alone. The loss of his wife might have meant the end of whatever restraint Walt had when it comes to self-expression; he promptly belittles the young priest attempting to console him and runs his sons out of the house.

Walt’s picture-perfect middle class house with an American flag and impeccable micro-lawn marks him as the dying remnant of a bygone era in a Detroit neighborhood that has become rundown and infested with gangs. Walt’s neighbors on all sides are Hmong immigrants, people whom he refers to largely in language I’d be embarrassed to write without quotation marks surrounding the words.

Walt would be much less sympathetic were it not for two factors: 1. By being played by Eastwood, we instinctively know that he’ll turn out alright, that he won’t be evil or a coward or unconcerned for the well being of the downtrodden, and that he possesses a blunt likeability, assuming his vitriol isn’t directed towards you. 2. There’s truth to many of his grievances. His children and grandchildren really are rotten and disrespectful, as are the local youths. The area he has spent his whole life in has crumbled, and as a proud former Ford assembly line worker, he can’t be thrilled with the state of business in America.

Change is set in motion when Walt catches Thao (Bee Vang), his teenage neighbor, clumsily attempting to steal his cherished 1972 Gran Torino. When the gang violence spills from the neighbor’s lawn onto his own, Walt uses the same rifle he used to kill Chinese during the war to chase the aggressors off. Next thing he knows, the Hmong are delivering all sorts of unrecognizable dishes and plants to his door, and he’s mulling about in their living room, drinking their beer and receiving readings from their shaman.

Eastwood’s primary triumph with “Gran Torino” is through both Walt’s progress and his lack of it. Behind and in front of the camera, he portrays Walt as flawed, locked into a system of values that are antiquated but not without their own merits. Walt’s racist, yes, but Eastwood is smart enough to know that all racists aren’t charter members of the KKK. Walt employs epithets but expects all others to do the same, and he’s open-minded enough to ultimately judge his neighbors by character instead of color.

The film’s trailers promise a thriller with a gun-toting Eastwood dueling gang members, and though that’s present, that’s not really what it is. It does come down to gunfire and a heavy-handed final confrontation, but so does every other movie ever released. What I’ll remember about “Gran Torino” are the quieter moments, such as when Walt teaches Thao how to get apply for a job, or when he finally confesses his sins to the priest. At 78-years-old, Eastwood gives a performance as nearly as complex as any he ever has, in a film that ranks high among his directorial filmography. Here’s hoping that retirement is out of the question.

4 out of 5

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