Gran Torino

Walt Kowalski in Gran Torino could be your dad. He sure is mine, or some version of mine, anyway. And if he's not your dad, he's your friends dad, or your girlfriend's dad. Trust me. He loves his dog, not his kids. His house is cleaner than it needs to be. Everything is organized and arranged just-so. He uses arcane expletives. Takes great pride in his lawn. And he's got a souped-up old car in the garage that he never drives. Sounding familiar yet? Perfectly rounding out this laser-etched archetype, Walt is a man filled up to the brim with a vaguely defined hatred of just about everything he encounters in his daily life. His kids and grand kids have been spoiled by his meager success and are now too busy for him. His neighbors, whom he calls 'gooks' and 'zipperheads' (as if those were still the preferred slurs even amongst racists..) are immigrants from Laos with a strange way of life that he tells himself he has no tolerance for or interest in. And his wife (whom we do not have the pleasure of meeting in Gran Torino,) has just died. Walt is a man isolated with his own rage.

The film opens on a cookie cutter Catholic funeral, one like we've all been to, where the Pastor has nothing new or extraordinary to impart, and everyone knows it, but plays along in some kind of vague spirit of honoring the dead, even as the kids fumble with their video games, and the adults mumble quietly to themselves about it all. Walt stands up front, greeted passively by each visitor, seething with resentment. He sees the moment for what it is; an empty ritual more useful for assuaging the guilt of the attendees than for condoling his loss. From here, we begin our journey with Walt, which will end up in unexpected and barely believable places. Walt will do things that ordinary men, even desperate, challenged or 'brave' ordinary men, do not do in today's world. And we, the audience, will lap it all up. Why? Because Walt is played by Clint Eastwood.

In anyone else's hands, Gran Torino would probably be dismissed as just a bit too drama-by-numbers. A bit too easy and a bit too safe. But in Eastwood's, it's a portrait of a generation. HIS generation? Clint's charms, even at 79 years old (which he will be at the end of this month) are many. In Gran Torino, he growls a lot, and his scowl, decades removed from his Spaghetti-western roots, is as gruesome and gnarly as ever. Even all these years later, Eastwood is still delighting in his badassness. He's the "Last Cowboy," and he knows it. But lest we forget, Clint is also a cultured man, and he has let in show more and more in recent years. A lover of music, particularly jazz, Eastwood has hopped into and out of various genres in his career, ever since his white-knuckle directorial debut Play Misty For Me. Mystic River in 2003 proved a milestone, earning numerous awards and a renewed interest in his filmmaking, as well as signaling a shift towards the more bracing, "serious" dramas he continues to produce. His films since have not disappointed, and Gran Torino proves to be no exception.

Walt is a reverse-Peter Pan, a fully grown-up man who refuses to grow up into any other kind of man. Or does he? (dot dot dot... the film plays on.) About halfway through Gran Torino, glugging down a Tsing Tao, now slowly warming to the affections of his immigrants neighbors, Clint/Walt lets his guard down and cracks a smile. So it's the 'old bastard with the heart of gold' story, right? Fine, but should we really swallow that pill so easily? We have by now come to grips with the nature and implications of Walt's various ill-defined hatreds and prejudices. Some are bullshit, just talk and nothing more. Some are very real, very deserved, and totally logical. And so we, as viewers, must allow ourselves a moment to determine for ourselves if we really can excuse Walt these myriad imperfections. But before we can muster up our argument, we are swept up into some unpleasantly violent circumstances, which of course serve to hammer home the "we're all in this together,' flag-waving banner that Gran Torino seems to have no qualms about shoving down our throat.

Maybe Eastwood doesn't apologize for Walt. But true to his Hollywood roots, Clint can't resist a few hilariously easy and uber-schmaltzy pock shots to tug at the heartstrings. A true blue entertainer, just givin' us what we want. But in the process, the 'message' one might take from Gran Torino loses most of its credibility. Are we are allowed to ponder how all this relates to Clint himself? To the characters he has made a living playing for 50 years? To Dirty Harry? If I had to guess, seeing as Eastwood himself has never been necessarily averse to change, enduring at least three career 'revivials' and reinventions, I would say that Eastwood is not 100% sympathetic to Walt. Walt is a man, a part of a generation, who's lives, actions and demeanors might just have been influenced by the tough-as-nails portrayals of such characters as Clint practically invented. In this way, Gran Torino can be cautiously viewed as some sort of back-handed denouement, a conscience-clearing admission on the part of Eastwood that being a cranky, snarling son-of-a-bitch is only as good as the baggage you bring along to it. But didn't he already handle that in Unforgiven?

In the end, as an entertainment, Gran Torino is a complete success and a film to relish, even though Eastwood (and screenwriters Nick Schenk and Dave Johansson) mostly just hint at the real emotions at play in these very real scenarios. When push comes to shove (and, in Gran Torino, it very literally does,) Walt just wants what's right in the world. Or so we are led by the hand to believe. It's worth asking why these emotions had laid dormant in Walt for so long. Why, in fact, he gives what he gives, when he gives it, to his sons, to his Pastor, and to Tao, the neighbor's young son whom he takes under his wing. And whether or not any of that is actually OK. But Gran Torino doesn't approach these details. It offers only the things we want to see, the things we WANT to believe about Walt. Perhaps even about our own fathers. And, let's be fair; Eastwood never did play no angel, did he?

Make no mistake, this is not realism, and not fantasy. It's Hollywood, Eastwood style. Where boys become men, and men.. are men. Everybody learns their 'valuable lesson,' and Walt (and Clint) have their last laugh, their scripted version of 'justice,' all the way up to the films laughably corny ending moment. And then, the credits roll.

Whatever you say, Clint. You nutty-ass Mick bastard. Tell me another one.

(note: I am well aware that I am writing reviews of movies on this site that are already well past the sights of the movie reviewer world. There is a multi-faceted explanation for this: 1.) It takes me a while to catch up to these movies, sometimes. 2.) I like the idea of being able to review something a little bit past it's buzz-generating opening. I like to let the dust settle and then see what I see. So.. stay tuned for my review of Iron Man! (you think I'm kidding..)