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Non-Review Review: Gran Torino

I think it’s fair to say that Hollywood tends lose interest in actors and characters when they pass a certain threshold, age-wise. Perhaps it’s representative of a general societal lack of interest in the elderly, or maybe it’s because old people don’t pay to see movies, but it’s very rare to see an actor hang around past their use by date. So rare, in fact, that people balked when Pixar announced that Up would follow a pensioner. In many ways we’re lucky that Clint Eastwood has held on to his influence in Hollywood, as I imagine any other director or star would have had great difficulty getting a film like Gran Torino made. Yes, the film has a few shortcomings, but it’s a stunning condemnation of the way that America tends to treat the outsiders, be they elderly or immigrants, but also a very effective character piece.

A very grumpy old man...

Clint Eastwood isn’t the best actor in Hollywood. He isn’t the most flexible, nor the most emotive. His range is fairly narrow, alternating between ticked off and angry (indeed, it’s so narrow that those two emotions are poles apart, relatively speaking). Casting him as a lead actor in an Oscar-grade drama seems a risky move, particularly when you remove the comfort zone of the Western setting of Unforgiven. Fortunately, to quote an earlier iconic character he has played, “a man’s gotta know his limitations” and Eastwood does. Walt, his ageing veteran, isn’t the sensitive type. He doesn’t emote. He doesn’t relax – eevn when drinking beer on his porch. He’s wound tighter than a… tightly-wound thing (yes, that one got away from me there). He actually growls when his son suggests putting him in a retirement home. That’s the kinda guy Walt is, full of anger.

Walt is part of the forgotten generation. He is a veteran of Korea, arguably the war that has escaped the popular consciousness, slipping as it does between World War II and the Vietnam War. Nobody cares about Walt or wants to help him. Which is grand, because Walt doesn’t want anybody’s help. He lives in an area that was probably a nice suburb when he bought it, but is increasingly home to generations of Hmong refugees, the other forgotten casualties of the Korean War. One of his neighbours wonders why Walt remains when all the other white folks have moved house, but the answer is clear: Walt really has no place else to go.

Eastwood crafts a wonderfully rounded character out of the veteran. His casual racism has proved a bone of contention around the film – with some suggesting it was a tad ‘too rough’ for the Academy to nominate – but it’s all just a mask, a distancing mechanism. I don’t image Walt was any easier to get along with when his neighbours had the same skin tone as himself. There’s a moment in Dirty Harry when Harry Callaghan meets his hispanic partner, and the officer in charge remarks that Harry isn’t racist – he hates all ethnicities equally. That’s what we’re talking about here. As rough as his edges may be, Walt is a good man – and we never really doubt that.

It’s arguably the character-centric aspects of the movie which work best, with Walt by chance becoming a reluctant father figure to the Hmong family next door after his wife’s death. Be it chasing a gang from the front lawn or teaching a young boy he nicknames ‘Toad’ how to talk to girls (is there nothing Eastwood can’t do?), these elements work well and we get this wonderfully bizarre notion (which Walt himself observes to his reflection) that he’s more at home with these outsiders than his own damn family.

There are a few problems. Most notably that very few of the supporting cast can act particularly well. This isn’t really a problem, since the movie is ‘mostly Eastwood, most of the time’, but it does get distracting occasionally. There is also the somewhat stitlted handling of the Asian gangs, which seem to be about five guys in the back of a Ford. I get what Eastwood is trying to do here, demonstrating how ridiculous these guys would be without semi-automatics and I understand that they form the backbone of the movie’s last third (and most of the plot), but they don’t really work – not so much as to detract from the rest of the film, but just enough to distract from it. One gets the sense that leaving them more-or-less unseen might have worked better, allowing the film to focus on Eastwood and the Hmong community with the gangs and violence remaining a spectre in the background.

But these are relatively minor complaints – it’s complaining about everything the movie is which isn’t Clint Eastwood. The director and his performance are the reasons to see the movie, which works best as a character study (and the social commentary flows from that). Whether you want to look on it as an examination of how America treats its elderly or simply as a quiet characetr-driven piece from arguably America’s greatest living directors, Gran Torino was easily one of the best movies of 2008.

6 Responses

  1. Pixar simply breaks down barriers that are seemingly impossible anyway. Just as with Wall-E, the 20 minute intro of UP was utterly amazing, with no dialogue again! The boundaries of film are only limited to Hollywood’s abilities to convey them to us.

    Gran Torino wasn’t without fault, but the aging Eastwood did give one of his most enigmatic performances ever, and as we’ve seen with Robert Redford, and Paul Newman towards the end of his career, and Redford aging, they can still have it. They just need the roles to make it interesting for them and us.

    • Yep. Pixar are incredibly. I’m a little disappointed that their slate seems to be filled with sequels (Toy Story 3, Cars 2, Monsters inc. 2) and that they’ve dropped their planned original features (Newt), but they are still the most consistently amazing studio out there. And I’m one those people who believe Toy Story 2 is better than Toy Story, so maybe there’s no need to worry.

      And yes, I’d probably put this up there as one of the best Eastwood performances.

      • Wow, Did you actually say you prefer Toy Story 2? I honestly thought I was the only one.

        I’m disappointed especially with Cars 2, as I found the original to be the most lackluster of their creations, and while Monsters Inc. was good, it felt moreover a childrens movie that the exceptional combo of both adult and kids.

        I’m still gunning for them and anything they do though. 🙂

      • I agree with most of that, but I do love Monsters Inc. I actually find the original Toy Story to be among their weakest work (with A Bug’s Life and Cars), but with Pixar “weak” is a relative term.

  2. I agree with everything you said. The Hmong actors were pretty cringe worthy but they aren’t professional actors so I can understand that. Loved the movie!

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