Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Gran Torino Movie Review: Growl and Scowl, Grrrrr

First published on American Madness on 19 December 2008.
Republished here with minor editorial adjustments that do not affect content.

The last few years have brought Clint Eastwood a great deal of critical success as a director. He’s recently had a four film streak beginning with Mystic River in 2003 that have brought three Best Picture Oscar nods, including a winner in Million Dollar Baby, and renewed praise for the aging movie star. This year Eastwood has given us another two films, each of which has the scent of awards season contenders, but ultimately fail to deliver on the promise of greatness that we may have unfairly come to expect from him.

Changeling, which opened in October, rides high mostly on the backs of the performances of Angelina Jolie and a refreshingly understated John Malkovich. Unfortunately the film, which tells the true story of a Los Angeles woman whose young son went missing in 1929, veers off into the wilderness of courtroom drama. It wears out its welcome after about ninety minutes of what could have been a taut drama, but instead becomes an outsized spectacle.

Arriving this month in limited release in New York and Los Angeles (opening nationally January 9) is Gran Torino. It’s a simple, character-driven story of a Korean War veteran making an unlikely connection to the Asian family who live next door.

The film begins at the funeral of Walt Kowalski’s (Eastwood) wife. The scene is a hodgepodge of poorly executed exposition and character development as we see his two adult sons discussing “the old man”, his grandchildren being disrespectful and dressed inappropriately, and the main character trait that Eastwood imbues Kowalski with: a scowl and low growl when he sees or hears something he doesn’t like. It’s a cartoonish actor’s flourish, something I would expect to see in a film by a lesser craftsman. What an unfortunate way to begin because it immediately got me thinking about the mechanics of plot and screen acting rather than enveloping me in a story.

Later a baby-faced priest straight out of seminary tells Walt he means to look after him and get him to confess. He made a promise to his late wife, you see. Kowalski scowls and growls. It’s not long before Walt gives the priest a severe dressing down, a habit he has when dealing with just about everyone in his life, most of all the new faces around the neighborhood.

Walt makes his home in suburban Detroit. He’s a retired Ford factory employee where he worked on the line that built his prized 1972 Gran Torino. Although Walt seems not have changed a bit since becoming a man in the early 50s, the faces around him have become increasingly foreign-looking. The Hmong (Asian immigrants from Vietnam, Thailand and Laos) are becoming more and more prevalent.

Gangs are a problem, too. A group of young Asian men try to recruit Thao (Bee Vang), the boy who lives next door to Walt. His initiation is meant to be the theft of Walt’s Gran Torino – a task at which he fails spectacularly and incurs the ire of the bitterly racist Kowalski. But one night the gang members are causing problems that spill over onto Walt’s property. He wards them off with his rifle, a souvenir the army seems to have allowed him to keep after earning a Silver Star in Korea, and becomes a hero to the neighbors, who bestow gifts of food and flowers on his doorstep.

In taking seriously the subject of deep-rooted racism there is a fine line that must be walked to avoid the heavy-handed preachy qualities of films like Crash. Mostly Eastwood succeeds on that front. As Walt builds relationships with both Thao and his sister Sue (I won’t get into the details because it’s sort of interesting to see how it unfolds) there is never any grand revelation, no dramatic speechmaking in which either Walt realizes the error of his ways or Sue patronizingly teaches him. No, Walt continues to refer to Thao as ‘slope’ and ‘zipper head’ even after he’s taken the boy under his wing. Walt grows to be able to see Thao as no more different than any other confused teenager, white or Asian, but I get the sense he will take his resentment of the invasion of an outside culture to his grave.

The major flaws are in the screenplay by Nick Shenk, which fails to provide any indication as to how the death of Walt’s wife has affected him. What was their relationship like? Did she share his racist views? His sons worry how he’ll get on without her. The only reference Walt makes to her is a throwaway line to Thao about her being “the best thing that ever happened” to him. Why open with her funeral if her absence is going to play no major role over the course of the next two hours? It just seems like a waste of film.

There are too many forced scenes, written to drive a point home quickly. Take, for instance, a scene in which Walt’s son and daughter-in-law try to convince him that moving into a retirement community is his best option. They stand over him showing him brochures and attempt to convince him like salesmen with all the right buzzwords like “people your age” and “active.” But doesn’t this kind of convincing in real life usually happen over longer periods of time, with support from other friends and family members, and perhaps after some evidence of the person having difficulty on his own? But then we wouldn’t be treated to the longest scowl and growl moment – and in close-up! I’m also not entirely sure of the way in which Sue befriends Walt. It develops a bit too quickly and unconvincingly. It’s a means for Walt to achieve personal salvation, which comes after an act of terrible violence against Thao and his family.

The best moments come from the sure-handedness of Eastwood’s direction. His skill is in drawing attention to subtleties. After Walt pummels a member of the gang that has been accosting Thao there is a brief scene in which he gets out of his truck, walks up to his porch, bends down for the newspaper and then opens the door. But provided Eastwood’s abilities both behind the camera and as an actor, we realize that this is the depiction of a 78 year old man suffering the physical effects of beating someone bloody.

Walt’s solution to the problems plaguing Thao and Sue, while a bit over-the-top, makes sense. And it’s really the only solution that will protect Thao. But if you think deeply for just a moment about the neat little package it comes in, you’ll probably realize it’s completely unrealistic and the reality is that Thao’s and Sue’s problems could potentially multiply as a result. It’s an ending almost disappointing enough to make you scowl and growl.

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