Sunday, 22 February 2009


I've wondered for a long time what Clint Eastwood might do as a valedictory film (in fact, in my 2001 Pocket Essential Clint Eastwood I guessed an adaptation of Fenimore Cooper's Prairie might be appropriate) and while Gran Torino may well not be his final film, it feels in some ways as if it ought to be. Clint has often been compared to John Wayne, and though one can take that comparison only so far, Gran Torino begins as if it intends to be Clint's True Grit, but winds up coming closer to being his version of The Shootist.

The film begins with a funeral. Clint's Walt Kowalski is a retired Detroit factory worker whose wife has died, and at the funeral we discover there is vast distance between him and his sons, and even more with their families (one of his grandchildren is played, almost literally, as a modern Veruca Salt). He wants nothing from the parish priest who comforted his wife, and the neighbourhood itself has, like his children, abandoned him; his neighbours are Laotian Hmongs, and Latino, black, and Asian gangs cruise the streets and intimidate anyone who gets in their way. Clint's Kowalski begins the film by literally growling, rather than speaking, to those who offend him. His neighbours, whom he calls gooks or slopes, remind him of his service in Korea, and he's quick to pull out a gun when he catches their young son,  trying to steal Walt's prized cherry 1972 Gran Torino, which a gang has intimidated him into doing. It's a world well delineated by the dark camera work of Eastwood regular Tom Stern, and even the sunshine takes on a flatness which suggests time past, or lost, certainly not the glimmering sunshine of, say, LA.

Most of the rest of the film details the gradual mellowing of Walt, brought about by his growing respect for his neighbours, and the intelligence of their sassy daughter, Sue, who's well-played by Ahney Her. He then takes on the initiation of the neighbour boy, Thao, into the lost rituals of American manhood, and the story becomes one of Walt's realisation that the immigrant Lors next door have far more of the traditional American values he cherishes than his own family. There's sometimes a marked lack of subtlety in Clint's approach, usually when he's working it for comic relief: the sequences of mutual ethnic insulting with his Italian barber are pretty cringe-worthy, although they do pay off when Bee Vang stops underplaying Thao, and speaks the language of the construction foreman with whom Walt's trying to get him a job. Clint also allows himself a moment of flashback, a specific reference to Dirty Harry (if not Charles Bronson in Death Wish), when he encounters a couple of black kids bullying Sue and a white male friend. That the white kid is a pretend gangsta again provides the comic relief, but the idea of the 70-something Walt backing down the toughs, gun or no gun, seems a bit forced.

What isn't forced is the film's ending, which spoiler warning prevents my discussing, but which works emotionally and structurally, and which doesn't involve the Gran Torino, which I'd been waiting for, and which I was glad Clint avoided. It's odd to think that in the major BBC interview around this film, uber-critic Mark Lawson somehow decided this film was set in Los Angeles, thus missing the titular metaphor: the Gran Torino was one of those big muscle cars which Detroit turned out in the era when Clint was becoming a star: now they are relics, just as Walt Kowalski is, and Clint himself is, big tough products of a world which accepted toughness, appreciated values of loyalty to family,tribe, and products manufactured in the country, and most of all didn't go all politically correct. Neither the Gran Torino nor Walt (and by implication, the image of Clint) have no real place in today's world, just as the city that produced them has lost its place, and the men who worked in that city's factories making things have fled to the suburbs while their jobs have fled to the very parts of the world that spawn the immigrants in this film.

But the film's ending is not concerned with those bigger issues. Instead, as I suggested, it is Clint's Shootist moment, and carries the same sort of emotional impact; if you think back to that film, and the difference between Wayne's performance in it and the Duke's Oscar for True Grit you'll also recall The Shootist was directed by Don Siegel, one of Clint's two directing mentors. Siegel would have been proud of this film.

directed by Clint Eastwood, screenplay by Nick Schenk, story by Schenk and David Johannson


Anonymous said...

Good review-I pretty much agree with you on this one. As someone who lives in the Detroit area tho I found it interesting that the makeup of the neighborhoods wasn't very realistic(originally this was to have been shot I believe in Milwaukee or Minneapolis but Michigan has been offering Hollywood big tax breaks). There are no Hmong in the Detroit area and no Asian gangs.

Michael Carlson said...

I guess you cant have everything, can you? Whatever happened to good old American gangs?