Saturday, January 24, 2009

That Old Hag Hates My Ass

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.


John Self said...

Beautifully put, bill. I might go and see this after all. In particular, the last sentence of the third paragraph is the sort of critical summation which should be part of every decent professional film critic's armoury, but sadly isn't. God bless you sir.

bill r. said...

Thank you very much, John, that means a lot coming from you. And as it happens I worked hard on that sentence, so I'm extremely glad it paid off.

Anonymous said...

Bill, great piece. You're right: you liked it better than me, but I liked it a fair amount. I especially like

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.


What I like best about the film is its end, and that its schematics which seems to lead to the same old apocalyptic revenge-ending, didn't quite pan out. I'm working on a post on it, if I ever get around to it.

bill r. said...

Thanks, Rick. I realize now that I should have talked a bit about some of the flaws like the behavior of Eastwood's sons in the beginning of the film, at the funeral (though not the behavior of the grandchildren, which I found all too plausible), and a few other things here and there. I mean, I know the film's not perfect, but it did have a very strong impact on me.

Anonymous said...

I realize now that I should have talked a bit about some of the flaws ...

We write what we write. As you implied by your comment about the synopsis, there are "standard" ways to write a review, but (1) you're not getting paid to write standard reviews and (2) you're writing from love of the game, so why not write what you want? The movie-review police aren't gonna come and get you.

bill r. said...

The movie-review police aren't gonna come and get you.

So you say...I'm not so sure, though. I think somebody shot at me this morning. I can't prove it, and I suppose it could have been a balloon popping, but still...

Fox said...

This is a great, swift review of Gran Torino. It's light, but heavy. Does that makes sense?!? I'm trying to compliment you here. In fact, it's my fave write-up on this film so far (Rick Olson is gonna hate me now).

I think this part is key:

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

I think that is a point that keeps getting overlooked by people who denounce the film as promoting racist or promoting a racist character.

However, I do think that Eastwood and the screenplay get a little of the blame for that, b/c the slurs seem overdone, to me. (I also feel this way about the first barbershop scene when it's just Walt and the barber. Why did they have to go on so long in showing us that these two joke with each other this way??)

Anyways. Great thoughts here, and I think I kinda like it when you write with an irritated fire underneath you!

bill r. said...

Thank you very much, Fox.

The slurs probably are overdone, but what would pulling back on them have done? Made him seem less racist? I've already heard from some critics that the film didn't go far enough in that regard, so the line Eastwood and Co. were walking was a very treachorous one, and no matter how they handled, many would think they stumbled.

And I liked the first scene with the barber. The second one, with Thao, though it underlines an important point, could have used a rewrite.