Saturday, September 19, 2009
The Incomparable Power of Gran Torino: Another Eastwood Masterpiece
DVD Discovery: Gran Torino
Produced and Directed by Clint Eastwood
Written by Nick Schenk
Starring Clint Eastwood, Ben Vang, Abney Her, Christopher Carley
Embittered retired Ford worker and Korean war veteran, Walt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood) breathes bigotry and discontent as he observes the neighborhood he shared with his just deceased wife being cut up into ethnic battle lines. He feels contempt for the Catholic church, too, where a funeral service opens the film. His estranged sons, who sell Japanese automobiles, want him to sell his house and vanish nicely into retirement home woodwork. His best friend is his dog, Sally.
When Kowalski glances next door to a fatherless Hmong family that has just moved in, he feels yet more disdain. But when gang violence involving the family’s young son, Thao (Ben Vang), spills onto Kowalski’s front lawn, the Korean vet, well armed, is cast onto a path that will take him into the graces of an extended Asian family. The integration is reluctant and slow and riddled with Kowalski’s crude racial slurs, as gradually he reconnects to humanity. “I have more in common with them,” he comes to admit to himself, comparing a virtual community under one roof to his own scheming relatives, each bent on accelerating his demise while awaiting expected legacies.
Thao’s struggle to remain free of gang life becomes the film’s compelling trajectory. Under gang coercion, the kid makes a bungled attempt to steal Kowalski's Gran Torino. From there, a story of how the two disparate souls are forced together and help each other gives this tough tense movie a genuine heart. It grabs you by the gut and yet, at the same time makes you laugh over and over. I did not know Eastwood possessed so searing a sense of humor, manifest here in wickedly subtle ways.
Having never seen, that I can recall, any of Eastwood's Dirty Harry films, I can't relate to critics finding elements of Harry embedded in Torino. I only know how mighty impressed I am by the richly textured character that Eastwood has crafted. I watched the DVD twice over two nights, and marveled at how the 78-year-old actor manages to shade Kowalski's sarcastic asides and tart racial slurs to others without them ever becoming the sort of a cheap running gag that a Jack Nicholson would make of them. It is that cranky humor, I believe, that ingratiates us so to Walt Kowalski. We are witnesses here to a brilliantly controlled performance and to another major work of art equal to Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby.
The heroic ending is one of those rarities in cinema where so many threads merge majestically into excellent completion. Here, Kowalski, caring more for the kid than for himself, engineers his own murder in order to send a gang of thugs to prison and thus spare his young friend Thao the likelihood of himself ending up in a gang or getting killed in vindictive crossfire.
The extraordinarily affecting Gran Torino is one for the ages.