Ever since Million Dollar Baby, Clint Eastwood's films have all had the same look, the same feel: studies in gray palette of a world filled with people being drained, pulled ever so slowly away from life on an opaque transition—not a path, far from a journey—from one world to the next. The plots, even the characters, hardly seem to matter: boxer, soldier (American, Japanese), child, murder, mother, old man, all live in a world whose pale white light, bleaching the image into the monochrome of old photographs, exerts a mortal gravitational force upon them.
Gran Torino, the filmmaker's second movie of 2008, is little different in focus from that of Changling, although, as always, the genre and the story shift, a new, quintessentially American archetype tested by a man who has lived his stardom as an example of that archetype. Much has been said about Eastwood not just acting in Gran Torino, but the role screenwriters Nick Schenk and Dave Johannson have written for him: a guilt-ridden, irascible old man whose calloused prejudices are a defensive barrier against the unchanging guilt inside him and the flux of the world outside, Dirty Harry in old age or some such triteness. Yes, alright, but as always this engagement with archetypes is Eastwood merely roping us in through things we recognize—the man brandishing a humongous pistol, the gravel voice growling bestial dissatisfaction along with nasty threats. Yet once we're in, we find this particular death trip one of simple comedy; a comedy almost broad yet too earnest not to be funny. In its utterly straightforward delve into a man and a community's preference for tradition to fend off death, Gran Torino presents the absurdities of defensiveness against the inevitable. That it takes the form of finding much to laugh about in racist slurs, a dying old man's gumption, and the erratically impoverished and gang-threatened neighborhoods of a decaying American suburb marks the film as a surprise—and a somber, moving one at that—rather than the easy read of finding it stupidly simplified, or silly.
What more can one say about a film that shares a final shot with the best film of 2008, Jacques Rivette's Ne Touchez pas la hache (The Duchess of Langeois), with the notably cringeworthy exception of Gran Torino featuring closing credits music garbled out by Eastwood singing in character? That clanker of a song is another instance, perhaps, of the film's challenging side-by-side salvo of comedy and melodrama to craft an utterly laconic picture of a man admitting not only that he has to die, but, as in all these recent Eastwood films, that he has to die right. Almost without pacing, containing only a handful of trite plot points delivered through stilted dialog from mostly unconvincing actors, the film typifies a style of late, old-age auteur filmmaking, giving the sense of a camera simply following the actor/director around as he improvises the bare bones of a movie on location around a stalk, resonate theme and stock assets. The result—again—is surprising. Far from the bloated, everywhichway Changling of this year, Gran Torino contains within its strangely tight wanderings the utter, dexterous precision of drama—comedy and tragedy–given not to intellect and consideration, but to profound conviction and feeling.