Friday, May 22, 2009

Gran Torino

Director: Clint Eastwood
Starring: Clint Eastwood, Bee Vang, Ahney Her, Christopher Carley, John Carroll Lynch, Brian Haley, Brian Howe
Running Time: 116 min.
Rating: R

★★★ 1/2 (out of ★★★★)

If Walt Kowalski, the cranky bigot Clint Eastwood portrays in Gran Torino ever wrote a book I'd imagine the table of contents would look something like this:

I. Kids today don't know a f***g thing
II. Why Obama shouldn't be President
III. Buy American or I'll kick your ass
IV. In praise of Charlton Heston
V. I'll show you how to solve the immigration problem

You get the picture. But forget everything you've seen or read about Gran Torino, the legendary Eastwood's latest as a director and what he's claiming is his swan song as an actor. This isn't what you think it is and it turns out Dirty Harry has a surprising knack for comedy. The movie is as hilarious as it is emotionally gut-wrenching, not going where I expected nor using the means I thought it would to get there. That the film is as funny as it is will probably cause discomfort and disgust for more discriminating audiences and if you're lucky it may even cause you to ask yourself why you're laughing. That's a good thing. You should ask yourself because it's a valid question. There's nothing funny about hurling racist, xenophobic slurs....right? Yet Eastwood manages to get away with it all. More so, you'll probably end up liking and respecting him even more as an actor/director when all is said and done. If it is a career closer then it's a fitting one, not to mention his most bizarre role. And what a relief that the film doesn't over-sentimentalize anything and turns out to be as just as stubborn and uncompromising as its polarizing protagonist.

Retired auto worker Walt is still haunted by his days in the Korean War where he earned a silver star serving our country. The film opens with his wife's funeral, an emotional blow that makes him even more bitter and cantankerous than usual. The last white man in a Detroit suburb overrun by crime, time has passed him by as he sits on the front porch with his dog, a shotgun and a cooler of beer. Walt hates everyone but most of his disdain is directed at the Hmong who have just moved in next door, who he refers to about every 5 minutes as "gooks" and "zipperheads." Said epithets are usually accompanied with a growl, sneer and grimace. The remainder of his hatred is directed at his selfish and ungrateful sons (played by Brian Haley and Brian Howe) who want to push their old man into a "retirement community" while his own grand daughter can't wait for him to kick the bucket so she can decorate her dorm room with his furniture.

When the shy, impressionable Thao (Bee Vang) attempts to break in and steal his '72 Gran Torino as part of a gang initiation rite, Walt doesn't call the police. He's too used to serving out justice on his own. The Hmong family, indebted to Walt for accidentally protecting them from those local gangbangers, offer up Thao (or "Toad" as Walt calls him) as an indentured servant. Male bonding and a softening of Walt's character is expected. That happens...but not exactly how you'd think. If it did, the film would have descended into cheap sentimentality, but instead Walt's growing bond with Tao and his family does nothing to temper his penchant for hurling ethnic slurs. In fact, it does so little to temper it that he even invites Tao to join in when, in the film's most hilarious scene, Walt trades vulgar insults with his barber (John Carrol Lynch). Of course, the idea being that he wants to show Tao how to act like a man.

A lot of viewers had major problems with this development, believing Eastwood is treating racism and xenophobia as punch lines, which is completely missing the point. There are old, bitter bigots like Walt who toss around ethnic jabs for fun every day. And they think they're a riot. What Eastwood taps into with his performance (which if you look closer is a whole lot more than just growls and sneers) is that people like this are funny, just not in the way they believe themselves to be. Speaking only for myself, I was frequently laughing at Walt's pathetic cluelessness. How stupid he sounded rattling all those slurs off every five seconds. That's exactly what Eastwood was going for and he nailed it. If anyone actually wants to believe he's endorsing bigotry or we should all embrace ethnic name-calling as sport, that's not his problem.

Even more frustrating for some will be that a lot of the points Walt brings up during the film are right. In another comical scene when he advices Tao how to pick up women the situation is made funnier when we realize that his tips could work. Similarly, when he takes Tao to meet a prospective employer, telling him how he should act and talk he's right on the money for that given situation. It can be uncomfortable watching a character so full of hate be right about so many things, have so much to offer, yet go about it in such an abrasive way. As it can be watching material this dramatically heavy mixed with moments of comedy. But none of it ever feels tasteless or unnecessary.

Those around him don't so much excuse Walt's bigotry as just begrudgingly accept it as part of who he is. He isn't changing. And if you don't like it, fine. Only two characters in the film seem to see through it. One is a young priest named Father Janovich (Christopher Carley) who promised Walt's late wife he'd get him to confession, which proves much more difficult than anticipated. He underestimates Walt, but Walt REALLY underestimates him. They're more alike than he's willing to admit. The other is Thao's sister Sue (Ahney Her) who doesn't buy Walt's "bad guy" act for a second and will use her spunk and sarcasm to break through it. Their performances are as impressive as Eastwood's, who never betrays the audience's trust in his character by wussing out.

The movie doesn't take the cheap way out as it builds to a big showdown that wouldn't seem out of place in a Dirty Harry picture or one of Eastwood's classic westerns. Except this time the the setting and the stakes are far different...maybe higher. I liked how Walt handled the situation on his terms, yet still stayed stubbornly true to his character. Comparisons can be made between Walt and another movie anti-hero from this past year, Mickey Rourke's Randy "The Ram" Robinson from The Wrestler. Both men have been bull-headed in their proud devotion to something they love and now that it's gone, so are they. Walt may take a little longer to warm up to, but the respect Eastwood earns for him is no less.

After watching Gran Torino, something stays with you in a way that isn't so easily replicated by a lot of films released in 2008. It actually feels very relevant to the time we live in now and the problems we're facing. The so-called experts claim that in these dark days we want to go to the movies for an escape, rather then be bombarded with social issues in our backyards. That's true to an extent, but what's truer is that audiences want to see smart, entertaining films made well, regardless of whether they leave the theater skipping with delight. In Walt Kowalkski, Eastwood has created another iconic film character and this will likely be the role he'll be best remembered for. More importantly, he actually looked like he had a great time playing it. Eastwood the comedian? Who would have thought? At age 78 he's still finding ways to surprise us.

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