Thursday, December 18, 2008

Gran Torino

There are plenty of reasons why I should hate Clint Eastwood's new film, “Gran Torino”: it's generic and clichéd to the point of instant predictability, it features scenes so contrived that I cannot understand why Eastwood didn't cut them out before he even shot them and, for the first time, the director fails to get even good performances out of his actors. Yet despite it all, I couldn't help but love this film and its crusty-but-lovable hero.

Eastwood is back in front of the camera as Walt Kowalski, a retired Korean War veteran who, at the start of the film, has just lost his wife. We learn all we need to know about him as he stands by her coffin at the funeral, the skin on his skeletal face pulled tight with teeth-grinding suppressed anger, squinting so tightly that his black pupils seem to take up the entire eyeball. He growls every line as if he even has contempt for speaking. Thoroughly bigoted, Walt is disgusted to live in an increasingly Asian neighborhood; in particular, his Hmong neighbors always seem to have a gathering, perhaps just so the matriarch of the clan can annoy him. However, when he stops a local gang from harassing the timid boy next door, he becomes a hero in the Hmong community, much to his chagrin.

From here we’re on a predictable path: Walt gets slowly drawn into the community, and even forms close bonds with the two teenagers next door, Tao and Sue. However, it’s the understated, leisurely way in which Eastwood depicts these friendships that makes “Gran Torino” such a treat. Walt never loses track of his racism, but he comes to view his Hmong neighbors as equals, even if he only thinks of them as “some of the good ones.”

Eventually the tensions between Walt and the gang he incensed must come to a head, but it plays out in a way that is both pre-programmed and surprising. The ad campaign gives the impression that the film is gonna lead up to some big action climax in which Eastwood will kick butt and take names and punks shall feel very unlucky indeed. Instead, Walt’s actions are much simpler, much nobler and much more reserved, and he couldn’t have ended it any other way.

While the plot doesn’t exactly shake things up, it’s still pretty solid thanks to Eastwood’s knack for visual simplicity and minimalism. Unfortunately, he stumbles quite a lot along the way. The gradually developing relationship between Walt and his neighbors is undermined by the juxtaposition with Walt’s children and grandchildren. Selfish and spoiled, they put up with the old man just long enough for them to feel like they’ve done their part. They clearly exist solely to point out the culture gap between not just whites and minorities but between Walt and the likewise traditional Hmongs and his lazy yuppie offspring, but their actions are so unrealistic and overblown that they turn a subtle comedy into a melodramatic bore. Likewise, the scenes with Walt’s profane barber are pointless and just there for a quick laugh.

And who is keeping track of the characters? Walt worked in on the assembly line at a Ford plant all his life, yet he has a shack stuffed with more tools than a high-end mechanic, and his children were clearly spoiled from a young age. How did he get all this money at a Joe job? Did he just steal the tools off the line when he left? The teens have no personalities of their own; they’re both brainy and Tao is shy, until the gang goes too far and suddenly he acts like he can take them all on single-handedly. It’s easy to blame the young actors, who are inexperienced and thus slip into grating melodrama, but the real problem is the weak script.

On paper, the film may seem hopelessly derivative and self-defeating, and it is. But that ignores Eastwood’s ability to draw our attention away from plot holes and cliché and onto the character of Walt, who is on solid ground. Eastwood is not an actor of great range, but he manages to tweak his performance just enough each time to make it different. Despite a few moments of incredulity, Eastwood finally leaves the usual melodrama at the door, and crafts perhaps his most instantly fun movie of the decade. It’s no awards contender, but it’s perhaps the truest display of the legend’s talent as a director not just of actors (which is not on display here) but of audience manipulation.

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