Film review: Gran Torino
Clint Eastwood's latest is grating and out of tune, in all the right ways finds Fred Rowson
In Gran Torino, Clint Eastwood’s character – Walt Kowalski – goes from being an unashamed racist to… still racist but, perhaps, a little more likeable. Over the course of the film, he slowly bonds with a Hmong family that moves in next door to him, feuds with a local priest, contracts lung cancer and stands up to a local gang. You can’t deny that Clint gets a lot of action out of a small cast and a location that is, essentially, two neighbouring houses. And the film, like the Walt himself, is good – great, even – despite all of its faults. And they are some faults. It’s badly written (especially some screamingly bad pieces of plot exposition in the opening quarter) it needs drastic re-editing (a certain priest character could be left out entirely, and several cuts simply don’t make chronological sense) and it stands almost constantly at the edge of comedy. Yet, somehow, it stands up against (perhaps, even, bests) Eastwood’s other film from 2008, Changeling, which was a powerfully made and woefully underappreciated work.
Gran Torino is set in a nowhere place, a nondescript American suburbia, populated by, as Paul Simon might put it, the dead and dying (be they the aged or the gang members who roam the streets, looking for a stray bullet). Walt is, from the beginning, an outsider and it doesn’t help that his family are comprised of some of the most incredibly banal and selfish people ever to grace the screen. Eastwood’s performance is contrived out of snarled epithets and guttural exhalations. It’s a knowing throwback to his days as ‘Dirty’ Harry Callahan and The Man With No Name, and it is when this connection becomes clear – quick-draw gun battles and all – that Gran Torino blossoms.
A lesser filmmaker than Eastwood could not get away with it but, the clichéd training montages and clunking dialogue are, arguably, one of the film’s strengths. Eastwood has dispensed of his typical economy and adopted a style more suited to Coogan’s Bluff, or one of the later Dirty Harry sequels. Yet where, in those films, the fabric of the movie itself is essentially racist (re-watching Dirty Harry, it becomes painfully clear that almost all of the minor criminal characters, dispatched with abandon by Clint and his massive revolver, are black) in Gran Torino the shockingly (almost farcically) racist attitudes of Eastwood’s character stand in stark contrast to the world around him.
Gran Torino is, essentially, a beautifully crafted exercise in audience baiting. It knowingly uses the same tricks as Dirty Harry, demonizing the antagonists to the extent that the viewer demands their blood, before pulling back at the last moment. The film’s climactic sequence is an elegantly staged double bluff, replete with dodgy coincidences and last minute changes of character to round it all off. It is, in places, hard to distinguish genuine faults from intended ones. The Father Janovich character, a young Catholic priest whose goal is to convert Walt, is poorly cast and his omission would result in a more focussed film. Neither is Gran Torino a brilliant answer to Eastwood’s political critics (Spike Lee, in particular) as, I suspect, Eastwood may have wanted it to be. It may be a perfect elegy to the character that he crafted with Sergeo Leone and Don Siegel, but its dramatisation of racial conflict – on a purely cinematic level – cannot compare to Lee’s intoxicatingly bombastic style that he perfected with Do The Right Thing.
As the end credits begin to play (after a ridiculously kitsch image of a cute dog in the eponymous car) Eastwood begins to sing on the soundtrack. Like Gran Torino, it’s grating and out of tune but, also, haunting and beautifully sad.