The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Gran Torino (2008)

I absolutely loved this movie. No, it isn't Eastwood's best film, by my or probably almost anyone else's definition. But for those of us who have been following him since A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS, and see him as a screen icon as well as an actor, as well as a star, director, producer, and watch him in what will almost certainly be his final "action" role, and to see it as not only a cracklingly funny entertainment, but thoughtful, honest, and ultimately wise....well, I'll just say that I can't remember ever crying in an Eastwood movie before. And I did. And hours later, driving to get pizza for the family, something broke inside me and tears just streamed down my face again. Sean Connery may well be my all-time favorite actor, but if I had to BE one of the two, I'd pick Eastwood.


The story is simple and complex. A Detroit Korean War Vet named Walt Kowalski lives in a deteriorating neighborhood now occupied by immigrants, including the Hmong immigrants who live next door, much to his irritation. Walt is a bigot, you see, with something nasty to say about every group that isn't his own...and if you ARE Polish, he probably hates you because of your choice of shoes. Walt's just lost his wife, and his own family is a total disappointment to him. When Tao, a high-school age Hmong, tries to steal Walt's car in order to join a local gang, it starts in motion a series of events that are funny, touching, and tragic.

In the process, GRAN TORINO turns into a meditation of mortality, manhood, race relations and even citizenship. Walt talks about "stacking slopes five feet high" in Korea, you see, hardly the kind of person to lecture us on Getting Along. But...the truth is that Walt's brand of Racism is the very best kind, one I've run into all my life: hyper-alpha Guardians of the Wall, who divide life into Us and Them, and carry their nightmares and scars so deeply within themselves that they can't express their deep and volatile feelings even to their own families.

They may say terrible things about groups, and even band together against them, but individuals can get past that armor. Individuals can connect on the level of mind, or heart. Men like Walt Kowalski are the salt of the earth, and you find them among all racial groups and nationalities. They bear deep wounds, cannot forgive themselves for their secret sins, and desperately seek an absolution they cannot ask for. Anyone who reads this column knows the problem I have with Eastwood's work. It is not a problem with him as a human being, or the Kowalskis of the world. A man like Kowalski would make an almost perfect neighbor. You may not like what he says, but he speaks the truth. Keeps his word. Has seen and done terrible things for his country, and bourne the weight in silence. Only his marriage to a good woman saved his soul...until she died, and then the emptiness within him makes him reach out, slowly and with complex results, for the human beings next door.

This movie just feels like a top-rate entertainment, the kind of film that sums up an entire cinematic lifetime with grace and razor-sharp efficiency. John Wayne might have played such a role, if he hadn't decided to do "The Cowboys" and "The Shootist" as his Valedictory. I am so proud of The Man With No Name. I remember watching "In the Line of Fire" when Eastwood's Secret Service agent talks about that day in Dallas, thinking that with a slight tremble of the lip, Eastwood had let his audience in closer than he ever had before. And now, in "Gran Torino" he lets us right up to the bone. Here he is, warts and all. I love Walt, and I love Clint. It is good, if brittle, men and women like him who have brought much of the good into the world. If this is his last film performance, it's a corker. If we have more to come...I can't wait. An easy "A"


Michelle said...

I'm curious....

Have you seen the alternate ending version of I am Legend?

What did you think of that?

Anonymous said...

"No, it isn't Eastwood's best film, "

Speak for yourself. It's in his Top Three for me.

Nancy Lebovitz said...

Are the racists who commit atrocities reliably some type other than the hyper-alpha Guardians?

Marty S said...

My wife and I are not movie buffs and we rarely recommend movies to others, but since we saw Gran Turino my wife has been recommending it to everyone. Definitely the best Clint Eastwood movie we ever saw.

Steven Barnes said...

I think the racists who commit atrocities are sick. Racism is just a differentiation based on visual sets, and attributing average characteristics thereby. People with racial prejudices often don't want you marrying their daughters, but treat individual human beings with courtesy. There is NEVER any excuse for the acts of violence and hatred, and Walt Kowalski wouldn't have been, say, a Klansman. He might have been the sheriff who VERY reluctantly prosecuted the Klan, choosing the maintenance of law over personal comfort zone. I have 100% respect for the "Guardian" position...but recognize that it, like all human states, has limitations and leaves scars.
Two hundred years ago, racism in the U.S. was perfectly reasonable. I don't fault Jefferson for his attitudes...but would expect those same attitudes to be totally different today: they were based on ignorance. Today, a real "racist" isn't rational. I consider it a form of OCD. Good people can and do have negative attitudes toward people of other groups. So long as they they can see beyond those attitudes to the human being beneath, they are limited, perhaps, but not sick.

Anonymous said...

Gran Torino had MANY absolutely HILARIOUS moments. He was DEFINITELY an equal opportunity racist.

STILL, I DID find the "white guy" saving the People of Color a bit trite, predictable, and problemmatic... BUT, I guess it was nice that somebody OTHER than Black folk was gettin saved, as is often the case in Hollywood....

Anonymous said...

I saw it last night. Excellent! I thought Walt was a realistic character - lots of flaws but basically good, just like most real people.

Anonymous said...

Gran Torino looks like a potentially good flick for gun enthusiasts

Unknown said...

I agree about Gran Torino, provisionally; it's not quite his best film now but give me a few years to experience it with a fresh eye a couple times, and I might change my mind!

With respect to the "white guy saves the people of color", I don't think that was particularly what it was about. I think it was about race, or more specifically culture, but in the opposite direction. One of the better reviews/commentaries that I read about Gran Torino was about how Walt represented an archetype that contemporary american society has forgotten, but that the hmong (especially in the film, obviously) haven't: the cranky grandfather figure who takes upon himself the responsibility to care for and protect his community.

I have a thought of my own to add to that, quoting a line from another movie, Way of the Gun, where James Caan, aging bag man for a mob boss is meeting with a young turk. As he turns to leave, he stops and says:

"There's something you need to learn about this business, little fella."

"What's that?"

"The only thing you can assume
about a broken-down old man... is that he's a survivor."

I wonder if we're losing that archetype because, for much of human history, you could assume that the old man, by definition, had seen a lot of trial tribulation. He's a survivor, which means he has some quality worth learning.