Eugene Weekly : Movies : 1.15.09


The Rookie
Clint Eastwood’s last stand?
by Jason Blair

GRAN TORINO: Directed by Clint Eastwood. Written by Nick Schenk. Cinematography, Tom Stern. Music, Kyle Eastwood and Michael Stevens. Starring Clint Eastwood, Christopher Carley, Bee Vang and Ahney Her. Warner Bros, 2008. R. 116 minutes.

Clint Eastwood In Gran Torino

Not long ago, while shopping for groceries, I chanced upon a relaxed and gracious Sam Elliott, the actor who steadies The Big Lebowski with leathery-voiced calm. Actually, I should say I heard Sam Elliott, at which point I turned to find him at the meat counter. Unaccustomed to sightings of famous people, I relayed the encounter to friends, which prompted — as these sightings must — further stories of the famous (and infamous) making their way among their un-famous brethren. Kevin Bacon had been spotted on multiple occasions, of course, but my personal favorite was the knee-buckling run-in with a french-fry eating Clint Eastwood in Sun Valley. Like Sam Elliott, Clint Eastwood represents a particular type of American male, a figure unambiguous and courageous in whom, as a projection of our heroic ideals, we enjoy taking comfort.

Gran Torino is about the darker nature of that hero. Eastwood plays Walt Kowalksi, a veteran of the Korean War as well as the everyday atrocities of an America in decline. Recently widowed, Walt is a man under assault, hemmed in by Hmong immigrants, dismayed by his spoiled sons and in general aghast at the lack of grit left in the world. Much of the enjoyment of Gran Torino involves watching Walt scour everyone he meets. This includes his dressing down of his parish priest as an “overeducated 27-year-old virgin.” A growler, scowler and insult-hurler, Walt heaves racial epithets in every direction. Gran Torino leaves no stone unturned on this front; Walt’s affection for racial stereotypes is so broad it’s inclusive. The act is overdone, but it needs to be, else Gran Torino would be merely offensive and not the amusing racial comedy it is. You wonder how long Clint can keep up the act and whether the film will go stale in the process. 

It doesn’t. Before long, a neighborhood boy, Thao (Bee Vang), is pulled from the clutches of a Hmong gang by Walt, setting in motion an escalating series of reprisals that threatens Walt as well as his neighbors. More crucially, it threatens to undo the fragile ties that Walt slowly creates with his diversifying community. The Korean War emerges as an enormous touchstone for Walt — too enormous, probably, for a man who buries so much. But if Gran Torino is evaluated for its unique, improbable spirit — it is, in fact, a relentless comedy about intolerance with many, many laughs — and if it’s savored for what is possibly Eastwood’s last acting performance, it’s a highly enjoyable film that mostly hits the mark. Lean and modest but haunted by the past, it is arguably the best film of the four Eastwood has directed in the past two years, a period that might be called the most prolific of his career.

Not that Gran Torino isn’t contrived. You’re smiling during fistfights (or gunplay) because for one thing, this is a Clint Eastwood picture: Even if his name isn’t Dirty Harry, Walt still is an Eastwood amalgam of myth, heroism and steady nerves, a fighter who’s going to find a way to win even if it means losing everything. Another contrivance is that the Hmong actors aren’t actors, which shows in the occasional off notes or missed mark in their deliveries. But aside from occasional thuds like Walt saying to Thao, “You know what, kid? You’re all right,” Gran Torino is a nice steady ride. The ending, when it comes, will move you — and move you to wonder what the world will be like when the Walts, as well as the Eastwoods, aren’t in it.