So here we are…50 plus years in the industry, and another cinema legend is bowing out, in his final screen appearance. Clint Eastwood, in the 1990s, made another swansong from the genre that made his name – Unforgiven was an instant classic…a lament for a lost vision of America…yet one that wasn’t pretty or sentimental. Unforgiven was as hard and callous as any of Leone’s or Siegel’s films set in the prairies and deserts. Unforgiven was an old school western given a realistic, albeit, revisionist angle.
If Eastwood consigned one genre to the past (the genre that made him a superstar), he however plodded on with other films for another eighteen or so years…it’s been a mixed bag, however, the films he has directed in the past five or six years have seen a stunning return to form: Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, Flags Of Our Fathers and Letters From Iow Jima.
Now, in what Eastwood acknowledges as his final screen appearance, he lays to rest another of his cinematic icons…Dirty Harry. Gran Torino is not another episode in the life of the San Francisco maverick-cop-with-a-hand-cannon, Harry Callaghan…yet Eastwood’s latest film is certainly in the spirit of those films.
Gran Torino, unlike the Dirty Harry films, has a heart and complex thematic pre-occupations to deal with. In the film, Eastwood plays a Korean war vet named Walt Kowalski, who is bereft of his way of life (a factory worker for Ford) and his recently departed wife. Unlike Dirty Harry, Walt hides his pain in comic indifference to the world around him…yet this man is hiding the pain of lonliness and what he sees as modern culture’s lack of respect for well…anything.
In a Michigan, working class neighbourhood, Kowalski sees himself besieged by ethnic minorities, and his All-American ideals shot to hell. He is a character who longs for company yet retains the stereotype of a grumpy old man. When some Hmong exiles move into the house next door, the old man’s humanity slowly breaks out…however, Kowalski’s humanity is deeply troubled and conflicted due to his past as a soldier. When one character asks him what it was like to kill a man, Walt replies, with anguish burning in his eyes (Eastwood is outstanding in this film) – ‘you don’t wanna know’.
Gran Torino, for all it’s amusing and deliberately racist comments, is a film all about the good and bad elements in all cultures. To accept the politically correct version of life, according to Eastwood’s film is doing more harm than good. Whilst some may argue about its simplistic moralising and stance…Gran Torino is actually a fairly subtle and beautifully played drama.
Sure, the audience will laugh guiltily every time Walt calls his neighbours ‘dinks’, ‘zipperheads’ and whatnot…but it will also see that the joke is on Walt and those that think like him. Ultimately, these ‘dinks’ give Eastwood’s character a beautiful friendship, once his guard and prejudices are caught off guard…the Hmong family next door to Walt end up the best family he ever had.
The story of Gran Torino could have come from any silly racist comedy…the type prevalent in 1970s England where a minority group moves next door to a white person…yet that is exactly the point of the whole film. It might all be amazing for those embracing multi-culturalism from a distance…but what if, like most white working class communities over the years, multi-culturalism wasn’t some ‘exotic’ option…because the ethnic minorities don’t pitch up in the middle class suburbs…they are thrown in with the others and that is exactly what Gran Torino is about.
Whilst the overly-melodramatic ending is satisfying…it does leave open many questions. As Eastwood’s last film, it implies that Dirty Harry finally finds his humanity amongst all the scum. Gran Torino is also a beautifully played comedy at times…a comedy of errors. Special mention must also go to the actress, Ahney Her as Sue, Walt’s conduit to the Hmong world and his guide.
Gran Torino is a most fitting swan song for one of cinema’s greatest icons. It’s a sad day indeed. Oh, and stay for the ending credits…the audience is treated to the dulcet tones of Mr. Eastwood crooning the film’s closing song…sounding like Tom Waits’ grandfather eating gravel…Eastwood hasn’t sung on film since Paint Your Wagon in the 1960s.
© BRWC 2010.
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