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Review: "Gran Torino" (Eastwood, USA)

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.
I felt exactly the same way as I saw the movie. It is cringeworthy and schmaltzy from time to time but the thing is that it is surprising how he as a director makes it all work by playing out his Eastwood persona, blending in a real fascination with Hmong culture, and the fact that Kowalski never goes all the way “good”. He’s still a son of a bitch to the end. I suppose that Eastwood wanted to make a sort of B picture out of GRAN TORINO. I’m not sure if it’s old age-auteurism (he showed us less than two years ago that he can make impressive pictures like LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA) than it is Clint making a little human story right off the cuff. As human as a cheesy Hollywood film can get. The greatest thing about it is how it embraces our idiosyncratic American love for racism by making it funny instead of the cold, relentless bludgeoning of dumb movies like Crash that take themselves too seriously. A movie like this one should teach a thing or two to Eastwood disciple Paul Haggis.
Danny, you’ve given GT probably the best defense it could have, with your typical eloquence – especially by admitting its silliness, stilted dialogue, unconvincing actors, etc. And yet I shall take issue with your concluding characterization of it nonetheless: namely, its “improvisatory” nature and its “profound conviction and feeling” as opposed to “intellect and consideration”. (And the latter two qualities have been abandoned almost wholesale by a lot of the film’s supporters.) One of the truly remarkable things about GT, to my mind, is that it combines a breathtaking incompetence on nearly every single level of craft with a ruthlessly cunning ideological calculation on the other. Eastwood is hardly unaware of his reputation – as latter-day “classical” filmmaker rather than onscreen icon – at this point, and GT seems tailor-made to play off both sides of that persona: on the one hand, old school conservative up-by-your-bootstraps-in-a-good-old-fashioned-blue-collar-occupation advocacy; on the other, equally good old-fashioned liberal humanism where a Flawed But Fundamentally Decent guy realizes the errors of his ways and welcomes his new racially mixed world with a big growly bear hug. Clint, of course, gets to embody both those traits within his own character/self-representation, and is thus doubly blessed. Where this kind of calculation becomes truly offensive is when Eastwood and his writers have to engineer the final confrontation, which they do by turning the Asian gang from petty thugs (with Uzis, admittedly) into out-and-out demonic villains by having them, in the film’s most repulsive bit of audience positioning [SPOILERS for those who care], rape a minor so that anything that happens to them can be justified. And then, of course, our bloodlust is turned back on itself when Clint, instead of givin’ ’em what-for and going out in a blaze of glory, does his Christ act and sacrifices himself – thus quietly shaming our violent expectations and making us appreciate the Profound Moral Vision on view before us. Bollocks, I say. While I prefer to write off GT as a work of stunning directorial laziness rather than an ideological con job, it’s impressive just how near the surface of the film these at best disingenuous, at worst repellent narrative gambits are. As a supporter of GT, you’ve made the first step towards a common-sense reaction by mixing your praise with an admission of (some of) the film’s sins, and I wish and hope that others will start doing the same instead of falling all over themselves to canonize Saint Clint before he goes off to join the angels (of the avenging stripe, naturally).
Mr. Tracy – I’ve heard this argument before, and I wonder if you’ve considered Gran Torino within the lineage of other recent Eastwood films, namely Unforgiven, A Perfect World, and Mystic River, as Glenn Kenny has eloquently done and Daniel does as well. Sure, GT has it’s faults, but on the whole it deals with conflicting opposites in a number of fascinating ways, pitting our expectations of violence against a more layered depiction of how past trauma’s reflect present and future. It sounds like “St. Clint” struck quite a nerve with your own expectations.
MCG – my problem with the “frustrated expectations of violence” ploy in GT does not have to do with its thematic continuity with other Eastwood films, but rather with the way in which it is set up. The rape decisively removes the gang from any semblance of common humanity on our moral compass. Earlier scenes that suggest these punks turned to the gang to escape their dead-end social situation (a dead-end escape, of course) are forgotten once they become out-and-out villains – and as such, nothing that happens to them could be too bad. Clint’s self-willed sacrifice is thus the apex of self-aggrandizement: as he’s facing nothing but animals, the only drama here is his; they’re just the enablers for his ultimate “redemption”. There’s no problem with examining the film’s conclusion or the film entire through an abstract thematic lens, but it’s the specific realization (in narrative and ideological terms) of those themes in this instance that rankle. And frankly, I think that the overwhelming majority of GT’s supporters are so enamored of how the film’s overarching themes fit into the trajectory of Eastwood’s career as filmmaker and icon that they are paying scant attention to how exactly the film itself goes about getting them up on the screen – which, as I said before, are often disingenuous, manipulative, and even offensive. And not to seem defensive, but as to “striking a nerve with my own expectations,” the build-up to the final showdown is so solemn and drawn-out that it practically announces that we’re not going to get what we “expect”. The only question is how Eastwood is going to engineer the expected surprise – which he does in a remarkably implausible way.
AT – I agree, a critic can’t get caught up in strictly looking at a film within a certain filmmaker’s canon of work, however I believe this film is much more complex than its critics are giving it credit for. Sure, the punk gang-bangers are one dimensional villains, but that never changes throughout the film, they’re always the menacing force on the outskirts of the story. They aren’t supposed to be characters, just emblems of the kind of offenders Clint use to dispatch in previous films. I found the real pleasures of GT to be in the small, silent moments when Walt is by himself, the best example being when he attempts to call his son and has nothing to say, nothing to communicate. And the ending does delve into the realm of implausibility, even getting a bit ridiculous when Clint sports the Christ figure pose. But his sacrifice struck a chord with me, and it seems a necessary ending to break the cycle of violence within the story and yes, his previous characters. And another thing, “breathtaking incompetence on every single level of craft”? Come on!
Hi Andrew, Thanks for your kind words and sharp argument! I’m actually surprised, of all the things one could pick on GRAN TORINO for, that the “implausibility” of the rape is an issue. I don’t find it implausible at all, a gang of armed hoodlums being humiliated and physically beaten lashing out by raping a girl doesn’t seem unlikely to me. Like in many of its aspects, GT combines two seemingly incompatible elements: a laconic attitude towards direction and pacing with a hyper-conventional and highly plotted story. If anything, I think the rape is too obvious and a likely an occurrence in this kind of story, especially after the girl is threatened by the black gang. Perhaps the most glaring element of implausibility in Eastwood’s direction is related to how the gang, for the first half hour or so of the film, is depicted and treated like just a bunch of local punks. Later, when they pull out guns, this seems a stretch for the characters. But once they do pull out guns, the rape is well within the the reach of the plot.
From “The Violence of Hmong Gangs and the Crime of Rape” by Richard Straka—in the FBI’s LAW ENFORCEMENT BULLETIN (February 2003): Throughout the United States, the number of Hmong gangs and the level of their criminal activity is increasing in severity. Their participation in criminal activity has evolved over time. During that evolution, they have become involved in a wide range of crimes, such as homicides, gang rapes, prostitution, home invasions, burglaries, auto thefts, and, most recently, the sale and distribution of illicit drugs. The crime of rape, however, with its violent nature, its strong incorporation into the gang’s operational structure, and the serious implications for the victim and the overall Hmong community, represents a particular concern to the law enforcement profession and requires a special focus to find ways of decreasing its occurrence. To this end, the law enforcement community must examine the unique structure of Hmong gangs, including their historical and cultural influences, and the characteristics of the ‘ritual’ use of rape by these gangs and the impact on the victims. […] The majority of the victims in these incidents are juvenile Hmong females. […] What makes these cases so similar is that the victims were afraid to come forward and, in most cases, did so reluctantly. Also, other victims in the cases would not come forward. One of the reasons for this reluctance to come forward was fear of the gang members because they had produced guns, talked about the “shootings” they had been involved in, and threatened to assault the victims or kill their families if they talked.

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