Friday, January 9, 2009

Gran Torino

"...Beats a Lonely Rhythm All Night Long"

Walt Kowalski—retired Ford employee—has just become a widower, hates his kids and despises his grand-kids. His wife asked the fresh-faced parish priest to keep an eye on Walt and he despises that, too. And his Hmong neighbors? He's a Korean War vet, so that's a no-brainer..

What he loves you can count on one gnarled hand, merely: his old dog Daisy, a cooler of PBR on his porch in the evening, his mint-condition 1972 Gran Torino...and his privacy. Invade that, and his face, frozen into a perpetual sneer, starts to show some teeth, and...if you're lucky...he may respond to you with merely a low growl. Usually, what he issues forth is a stream of obscenity and invective with a few choice slurs thrown in. He's a reflexive racist with one saving grace—he hates everybody. He's not a happy man, and in perpetual attack mode, but leave him be on his front porch with a half-rack, a pack of Camel straights and Daisy, in the evening, and it's okay.

Leave him be.
He has guns. Lots of them.

Clint Eastwood said he was retiring from acting at about the same time that Paul Newman announced his own retirement. For Newman, it was a quick decline to the grave. But Eastwood directed Angelina Jolie in the fine "Changeling" and after its premiere at Cannes began working on "Gran Torino" as both director and lead actor. He's 78 years old, and he's released two movies this year. That's impressive, but you can see why he wanted to do this role. The film, spare in its scope, hearkens back to the cinema of the 70's, when Eastwood began his directing career. And the themes raised in the film are similar to other projects he's directed, specifically "The Outlaw Josey Wales" and "Bronco Billy," with their accumulation of "family" by accident. Additionally, Walt Kowalski is a neighborhood version of Eastwood's previous snarly outsiders who stand apart from polite society, acting--at the very least--impolite. Then, there's the vigilante aspect; Eastwood was pretty much the poster boy for taking the law into your own hands in the era before spandex superheroes on-screen. But, just as he's done in about every film since his Oscar-winning "Unforgiven," he has turned expectations of what to expect from him and his movies on their ear.

One critic has opined (and been roundly criticized, I think, unfairly) saying that this is Eastwood's version of a "
Rooster Cogburn" role. And it is. Just as John Wayne channelled a bit more theatricality into that role beyond his usual screen persona, Eastwood does the same, amping up the comic aspects of Kowalski a few degrees beyond the surly men of few words and violent actions of his previous roles. The growling may be laid on a little thick at times, but Eastwood, his hair spare and almost completely white now, his body slack with age, the furrows in his face as deep as canyons, and a voice full of gravel, still possesses a power few actors can carry off on-screen. Even approaching 80, he can still scare the crap out of you, as in a scene where after cold-cocking a gang-banger and repeatedly slamming him in the face, the camera looks up at his crazy-buggy eyes and bared teeth. "If I have to come back here, it's going to get fucking ugly!" he spits. And you believe it.

The story is about a Michigan resident set in his ways and his house as his neighborhood changes in ethnicity. To him, it's an invasion. But it doesn't stop there. After the families come the gangs targeting the kids, and Kowalski's neighbor Tao is assumed by his gang-member cousin to be a natural recruit. His initiation: steal Walt's Gran Torino.

Bad move. And only another bad move on Walt's part prevents somebody getting killed. Tensions escalate among the neighbors, and when Tao is nearly pulled into a gang-retribution for screwing up, Walt does some boot-stomping—they're on his lawn—
and he becomes a reluctant hero to his neighbors, who begin piling his porch with flowers and food for saving "Toad"-Kowalski's kindest word for the kid.

What's great about this movie is that any other writer (
Nick Schenk did the script) or director would begin softening up Walt's character and turn this into a nice, comfortable sentimental goo for general audiences. But Eastwood doesn't go there. His Walt is a bully, who knows that you intimidate by getting into people's faces and slamming them fast, making him on an equal aggressive and moral footing with the gangs (nobody mentions that Walt's bar-crowd and perpetually barbed shit-slinging—all done to ribald comic effect—is a parallel to the tough-talking hoods in their gangs, as they're both cliques and community sub-sets). It's just a matter of who's got the most cajones and least ability to blink under stress—like a Western gun-fight. Walt's history in Korea has given him body-bags more experience than the street-toughs will ever know. He understands intimidation.

Tao's sister is a smart, tough kid who stands up to the gangs...and to Walt...and she's the conduit to what understanding of the culture he can scrape up. He respects her strength and her sense of Family, far more than his own family can. But all this standing up and tough-talking and chest-expansion comes down to conflict and escalation and given Walt's history...and Eastwood' can't come to any good.

Except for this movie. There's going to be complaints about insensitivity and stereo-typing and bad language and slurs and lack of respect for the Church and all sorts of other drivel.
There's going to be sniping about amateurish acting among the ethnic, young cast and, to be sure, there are flaws. But call me a troglodyte, I loved this movie, and it made me nostalgic for the stripped-down story-driven ones of the past.

And I couldn't help thinking "Jesus Christ, let's give the old bastard an Oscar for his performance in this one, can't we?" Mickey Rourke is basically stretching the same muscles as Eastwood does here, although less sentimentally, and much as I love Sean Penn's performance in "Milk," he's got an Oscar.

Eastwood gave it to him...finally.

"Gran Torino" opens in many more theaters throughout the country today and is a Full-Price Ticket. Call me "sentimental" and I'll slap you silly.

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