Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Archive: 'Gran Torino'

Movie Review
Gran Torino (2008)

Clint Eastwood is the man. It's another good year for him because now after "Changeling," at age 78, he's even directing himself. In "Gran Torino," Eastwood plays Walt Kowalski, a disgruntled and retired auto worker from a Ford plant who lives in a rundown neighborhood in Detroit. Walt views the world as a place filled with senseless sons of bitches, and the neighborhood where he lives is racially mixed. Walt is a Korean War veteran, so when a Hmong family moves right next door, one can imagine his discontent. He calls them "chinks" and "gooks" and any other name in the book. He so easily infuses racial slurs and bad-mouthing into his everyday talk because he justifies that it's how all Americans talk. Just look at how he talks with his barber. Walt isn't so much a racist as he is just using it as a surface protection against himself. Eastwood's portrayal of the beer-guzzling Walt nears self-parody, and he's often quite hilarious. It's an excellent and fittingly career-capping role for him as he's now claimed this will be his last time acting. Take note, Academy.

Even though his wife just passed, Walt makes sure his spoiled son with his foreign car and his ungrateful granddaughter keep out of his business. He gets visited frequently by a priest (Christopher Carley) who received a dying wish from Walt's wife to have her husband go to confessional. Walt has some lingering inner demons that still haven't let him be at peace. He spends his days guarding his front porch with a shotgun ready and loaded inside the house. His initial involvement with the Hmong family comes when a gang starts rustling with the youngest in the family, Thao (Bee Vang). Walt breaks up the fight mainly because it encroached onto his lawn. "Get off my lawn," he growls at the gang members. Walt has a prized 1972 Gran Torino tucked away in his garage, and when the gang members force Thao to try to steal it, Walt catches him. Thao's sister, Sue (Ahney Her), begs Walt to allow Thao to do work for him to earn his forgiveness. Walt reluctantly accepts and soon discovers that he has more in common with Sue and her family than he even does with his own. He unintentionally becomes the neighborhood hero.

For the most part, Walt seems unaware of his important role with the Hmong family. He mostly just likes when he's brought delicious Hmong food that he quickly gains a taste for. But then again, he begins helping out Thao a whole lot after wanting to shoot him dead, meanwhile acting like there's nothing to it. Walt is a good man, but he's also not a very easy man. While he has the capacity within himself for generosity, he doesn't show it well. And so, when he eventually confides in the Hmong family as he does, it's a real honor and means something. It's in Walt's nature to act as security, so when the gang persistently continues their threats, there's no good end for them. One line of Walt's tells it all: "Ever notice how you come across somebody once in a while you shouldn't have fucked with? That's me."

Clint Eastwood's "Gran Torino" has a twist of an ending that pulls no punches and provides no easy route for redemption. It's vintage stuff, echoing Eastwood's earlier days of "Unforgiven." While this latest movie of his feels a little more quickly tossed together than his other work, it's no less a great movie. It's also comforting to see a movie being shot in Detroit, even if it's being presented as a cesspool of gang violence. A quick reference to Michigan State was a nice little treat. Eastwood works with the same familiar themes he's focused on in his recent films, and especially here, it's all wonderfully understated. The movie works as a comedy and as a drama, but most all, it works as a meditation on violence and tolerance. And perhaps also as a farewell.

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