2000s, 3/4, Clint Eastwood, Comedy, Drama, Review

Gran Torino

#14 in my ranking of Clint Eastwood’s films.

Following up a grand, period piece, Clint Eastwood gravitated towards a much smaller script by Nick Schenk (based on a story that he and Dave Johannson came up with) that feels like Eastwood just playing himself. The last time a role so fully felt like Eastwood playing himself was Honkytonk Man, another story about a father and substitute son, and that was in a very different point in his life. Now, in the late-2000s, Eastwood is far more cantankerous, more fully an old man in every sense of the word. The film itself is entertaining on its own, but that contrast between how Eastwood seemed to see himself (as well as America) in the late 80s and several decades later is interesting.

Walt Kowalski (Eastwood) lives in the rundown suburbs of Detroit, and his wife has just died. Beginning at her funeral (with Eastwood simply scowling at the camera), he watches his two sons Mitch (Brian Haley) and Steve (Brian Howe) show up with their families, their children receiving particular and silent opprobrium from Walt as they do not show the proper etiquette and decorum for the occasion, in particular Ashley (Dreama Walker) who shows her mid-drift and texts during the ceremony. It’s nothing compared to the death-stare Walt offers the young priest, Father Janovich (Christopher Carley), who, as Walt puts it, is an over-educated 28-year-old virgin who doesn’t know anything about death. Back home during the reception, Walt just hates that his house has been invaded, and that gets held in contrast with the Hmong family, the Lors, who have moved in next door. In between being dismissive of his children and grandchildren while being outright hostile to Father Janovich, in particular around the priest’s insistence on hearing Walt’s confession, something Walt’s wife forced him to promise, he has only unwelcoming thoughts towards his neighbors.

The younger of the two children in the house is Thao (Bee Vang), a smart, directionless young man whose cousin Spider (Doua Moua) is in a gang and is trying to recruit Thao. Thao’s older sister Sue (Ahney Her) wants to protect her brother, but she knows that they live in a place where Hmong boys almost always end up in jail. Spider convinces Thao to try and steal Walt’s prized Gran Torino to prove himself worthy of being in the gang, something that Walt prevents in a surprisingly strong sequence visually that recalls Walt’s service in Korea, combining it with the Chinese-looking young man, of the same age of the men he killed more than fifty years before all as the scene is only lit by a swinging ceiling light. It’s one of Eastwood’s best and most interesting looking directed sequences in his whole career.

In order to make amends, Thao’s mother and sister force him to work for Walt, and we get the movie turning a bit more standard. I think the first half is better than the second, more purely a character piece with an entertainingly grouchy performance from Eastwood at its core. The second half becomes the more typical pseudo-father and son relationship as Walt teaches Thao to be a man. It’s colored by the rather unique way that Walt goes about it, in particular around his lessons on how to talk like a man (laced with insults and low-level racist talk that bonds men together), but it still feels rather generic beyond that surface delivery.

What’s interesting is how there is an obvious metaphor about the changes in America from the 50s to the 2000s. Walt watched his family become something he didn’t understand, embracing cultural mores that he didn’t appreciate, while his job at the Ford plant got taken away, his friends in the neighborhood all moved away or died, and the neighborhood became populated with people similar to those he had been fighting decades prior. The America he knew has been lost, and it’s partially his own fault, having not imparted his own preferences on his children to pass along to theirs, helping to create this America he doesn’t know anymore. At the same time, the Hmong immigrants are becoming Americanized in their own way, in the male embrace of gang culture in particular. Thao coming to Walt to make up for his attempted crime becomes Walt’s opportunity to impart his own good-old-fashioned American values to a new generation, even if this new generation isn’t his actual progeny. So, there’s a very interesting thematic focus, but I just find the actual storytelling to be kind of rote.

Thao follows Walt’s advice until Spider and his gang corner him and torture him a bit, and Walt has to protect the kid and his family. There’s something about this final act that just doesn’t engage me at the same level as a lot else. Maybe it’s the fact that Spider isn’t really Walt’s antagonist and that Thao’s fight with Spider is only Walt’s tangentially. He’s trying to save Thao, which is understandable, but I don’t feel the conflict with Spider all that potently when it comes to Walt. I get it, but I don’t really feel it.

Another weaker element is the performances, a rare complaint in an Eastwood film. This is the first time that Eastwood had really brought forward non-professional actors that weren’t his own kin, and the lack of coaching seems kind of obvious. Both Vang and Her are essentially co-main characters, and their line deliveries are stiff at best. Neither had acted before, and Eastwood trusting them to get it right on the first take, like he could with people like Gene Hackman, Angelina Jolie, or Morgan Freeman, and that seems to have been a mistake.

Gran Torino is an entertaining film with something real on its mind, but it’s hampered slightly by a more generic approach to its second half and some key performances that don’t work very well. I can easily see the appeal to Eastwood, but it’s one of those scripts that probably needed another draft while also needing some more professional actors if Eastwood wasn’t going to go full-Bogdonavich and coach his actors.

Rating: 3/4

10 thoughts on “Gran Torino”

  1. The thing I remember most is the acting, and that it was stiff and awkward at times. Even Clint tripped over a line or two. He has a reputation of just doing one or two takes, that definitely hurt him here.

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    1. His overall approach to filming works when he hires professional actors who can largely guide themselves. He’s sort of like Hitchcock in that regard, and Hitchcock understood that he needed to work with movie stars to make his films work. He could trust Cary Grant or Henry Fonda to do what they needed to do, to bring what was necessary to fill the role.

      Eastwood can do that when he hires someone like Sean Penn in Mystic River or Hilary Swank in Million Dollar Baby. He can’t do that when he gets a kid on his first acting job ever. This isn’t the only time that bad decision is going to bite him.

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  2. This movie subverted my expectations. And I hate that.

    In particular, I was looking for and hoping for Clint would take out the gangsters in a blaze of glory. A final blaze of glory, if needed. But getting himself shot so the bad guys would get arrested (and probably be out of jail in 3 years because Detroit) really pissed me off. I ‘get’ what Walt and Clint was doing there, it just wasn’t what I wanted to see. It’s very hard to get what I want in movies anymore, sadly.

    That aside, yeah, the movie works. I liked Walt acting as a father figure, I liked his conflict with the priest (who still, even at the end, feels like a slight and superficial man who really doesn’t understand the world), and with his family.

    There is a strong air of reality in this movie. I have mixed feelings about that. On the one hand, I like verisimilitude, on the other hand..I go to movies typically for a heightened sense of drama. The scene when Walt faces down the gang members with a .45, that’s heightened drama. The scene where Walt breaks down about seeing the dead face of a teenaged Nork soldier, that felt more ‘real’.

    Maybe I hate too much reality in my movies. But, that said, I think this is the last Great movie of Clint’s Twilight phase of his career.

    This movie did get me appreciating, and buying, more hand tools though. So there’s that too.

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    1. Yeah, that ending is…off. For me, it’s not the subversion it’s the idea that the police would come and actually wrap things up at all. A more “realistic” ending in Detroit would probably be a dog eating Walt’s corpse a couple of days later where the gang dumped it. That’s a depressing end that he obviously wasn’t going for. He wanted the heroic death, and I guess he got it. It just relies on the completely absent cops of Detroit to suddenly appear and do their jobs which is something of a stretch.

      So, does the Twilight stage of his career go through Cry Macho, or is there another stage?

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      1. Yeah, I count Heartbreak Ridge to Mystic River as Sunset stage. Everything Mystic River I consider his Twilight stage. He’s got good movies in each phase of his life, really impressive career.

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