Having just returned from seeing Clint Eastwood's Gran Torino, I'm wondering if I should let it sit for a while, think about it a little more, turn it over. "Think about what?" I ask myself. I've listened to and read the criticisms that this film has received since its release -- it's old-fashioned, some of the acting's not up to par, Clint Eastwood can't sing, even that the whole film is "embarrassing" -- but my gut reaction right now is that none of those complaints hold an ounce of water. This was a profoundly emotional film for me, to the point where the critics who howl at Eastwood's sincerity and plain-spoken approach to the material (one thing this film is not is subtle) make me genuinely angry, and make me think that they are not to be trusted. I wouldn't trust them to remember to pick me up some Gator-Ade, let alone accurately describe and judge Eastwood's latest film.
So maybe I should let Gran Torino sit for a little while longer, but I guess I'm not going to, because here I am, already on the second paragraph. Which is around the time that I'm supposed to offer up a brief synopsis of the film, which I probably don't have to at this stage of its release, but here it is. Eastwood plays Walt Kowalski, a bigoted Korean War vet whose wife has recently passed away. Living by himself in a run-down suburb of Detroit, he watches his neighborhood fill with Hmong immigrants, as well as Hmong gangs, and he watches his grandchildren behave like uncaring animals at their own grandmother's funeral. In short, from where he sits (on his porch, with his dog, drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon), he's seeing everything he values slipping away.
One night, one of the his younger Hmong neighbors, a quiet kid named Thao, tries to steal Walt's prized 1972 Gran Torino, as part of the initation into a Hmong gang (headed up by his cousin) that he actually wants no part of. Walt chases the kid off with his rifle, and a few nights later busts up a fight between Thao and the gang that spills from the neighbors' lawn into his own. As the rest of the immigrant community in Walt's neighborhood actually can't stand these punks any more than Walt can, he is thereafter seen as something of a minor hero, though his liberal use of epithets like "zipperhead" and "gook" cause his coronation to be fraught with tension. Still, Walt's racism, repellent as it is, is revealed to be of the casual, habitual variety, and not the virulent, to-the-bone type -- we learn this because Walt grows to like his next door neighbors (one small detail I liked is the fact that, when Walt's benign nature starts to show itself early on, it's always after he's had a few drinks), particularly Thao, who does odd jobs for Walt to amend for trying to steal his car, and Thao's sister Sue, a very bright young girl who doesn't merely shrug off Walt's slurs, nor does she fire some of her own right back, which is the typical Hollywood method of melting the hearts of genial racists. Instead, she shows that she understands the kind of old man Walt is, and that he is actually a good person who through a mix of anger that is both justified and unjustified -- so much of both that he can no longer tell the difference -- has found his preferred way of living and thinking stuck in the past, and he is in no mood to do any tweaking.
If all of this sounds a little schematic to you, that's because it is. And there's more: Walt has a very bad cough, the gang is going to keep hassling Thao until somebody does something about it, Walt's priest wants him to go to confession, and so on. But had Gran Torino been made in the late 50s, early 60s, the simple, direct and open-hearted storytelling that is being derided in some quarters, would be pointed to as what used to be so great about American movies, and isn't it sad that filmmakers these days consider it unhip to be that old-fashioned. In other words, these critics seem to bemoan the absence without actually wishing for the return.
I've also heard some claim that Gran Torino is, at times, laughable, which is an odd complaint to make about a film that is trying, and succeeding, to be funny at least half the time. Walt flings around his slurs to a truly ridiculous degree, peppering his sentences with them the way most people these days use "like" or "fuck". Of course, when he takes Thao to his local barbershop, run by John Carroll Lynch, to teach him to talk like a man, Thao calls the barber a "dago prick", because that's what Walt just called him. Walt, however, warns the kid that he could get into serious trouble using that kind of language around a stranger.
Where the film really finds its place is in Walt's bitterness and sadness and guilt. He is not a happy man, he doesn't much like himself, and he knows that he doesn't have much time left. He is haunted by his war experiences, and though he claims to be at peace with himself, that peace really just involves him sealing himself away from everyone else, to the greatest degree possible, so that he can quietly drink his beer and smoke his cigarettes and pet his dog. The moment in the film that has been played up in commercials, when Walt, holding his rifle, growls "Get off my lawn" really kind of sums it up. That phrase by this time is an old joke used to evoke any old, unfriendly guy that the unoriginal funny-man spouting the cliche' has ever known, but has not actually known, and has never spoken to. Gran Torino's theme really has less to do with race than it does with the old notion that there's a lot more to people than what you think you know about them, because you're not that smart, and neither am I, and neither is Walt.
Oh, and yes, Clint Eastwood sings briefly at the end, and he doesn't have a very good voice. But I can't help but wonder if he did have a strong voice, would that moment have been so moving? I don't believe it would have been.