Dir. Clint Eastwood
(R) ★ ★ ★ ½
Walt Kowalski is one of the year’s most interesting characters. He is hard and misanthropic, but not impenetrable. If he acknowledges you without a loaded gun pointed at your face, you’ve got something. If he pronounces your name properly, it’s because you’ve earned it. If he tolerates your presence for any amount of time, you’ve got a friend.
To call his relationship with his family strained would be generous. He disapproves of them, and they hate him for it. Watching scenes with his sons Mitch (Brian Haley) and Steve (Brian Howe) is like watching The Savages from the father’s point of view: bitterness all around, old childhood wounds that never healed. We can sympathize with his boys. Walt has a glare that could reduce a grown man to tears; a lifetime of it would entitle you to hazard pay. However, it’s tough to side against a character played by Clint Eastwood, and even harder to side with his sons, one of whom allows his daughter to wear a skimpy, belly-baring outfit to their mother’s funeral.
Walt is a Korean War veteran. His neighborhood is increasingly inhabited by a community of Hmong, an ethnic group indigenous to Southeast Asia. He sneers at the sight of the family now living next door, especially a grandmother who wishes he would leave like all the other white people have. The neighborhood is terrorized by an Asian gang. One day he chases them off with his rifle and becomes an unwilling hero. He wakes up to a porch covered with gifts of gratitude. He throws them away; being left alone would be gift enough for him.
The ads for Gran Torino suggest a straightforward, Dirty Harry-style vigilante thriller, but the film bears a striking resemblance to Eastwood’s 2004 masterpiece Million Dollar Baby, suggesting themes of special interest to the filmmaker. Frankie Dunn, his character from the previous film, was also estranged from his family and forged new bonds despite himself. Both characters show a disdain for the church. Both make impossible decisions for those they love. And in both films, Eastwood demonstrates a somber optimism for a reconciliation of the generation and culture gaps.
The performances of the young actors are worthy of note, thought not always for good reasons. As neighbor Sue Lor, Ahney Her exhibits a spirited, firecracker personality that distinguishes her scenes with Walt; she isn’t afraid of him and doesn’t back down, and this earns her a small measure of his admiration, which is about as much of his admiration as most could hope for. In their best scene, he calls the Hmong “jungle people,” and without missing a beat, she corrects him: “We were hill people, not jungle people.” However, Her has a lack of polish that leaves some scenes feeling forced.
Bee Vang plays her brother Thao, whose attempted theft of Walt’s 1972 Gran Torino drives the story. After Eastwood, he has the film’s most pivotal role, and he is admirably earnest, but sadly it cannot compensate for a lack of consistency. He plays Thao’s meekness effectively, and sincerity isn’t a problem. However, as the emotional demands of the role increase, his performance wavers. Set against the natural grit of Eastwood’s performance, he comes off as self-conscious, mannered. We notice him trying very hard, and that’s the problem.
Eastwood as a director has an exemplary track record with actors. (Four of his stars have won Oscars this decade, and two others were nominated, including himself.) He cast Her and Vang for a reason. This is their feature debut. I look forward to seeing them develop in future projects.
To call Eastwood a prolific director is like calling water a little wet. What is impressive is not the frequency of his output, but his consistency. Since 2003: Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, Flags of Our Fathers, Letters from Iwo Jima, Changeling, and now this. Three nominees for Best Picture. One winner. I have given positive reviews to all of them, and even though Changeling, released less than two months ago, is one of his lesser works, it is still made with beauty and elegance. (He can be forgiven for 2000’s Space Cowboys; nobody’s perfect.)
Gran Torino is one of his finer works, and only occasionally does he seem to repeat himself — the scenes with stubborn Father Janovich (Christopher Carley) seem overly familiar after Million Dollar Baby. From an insightful screenplay by Nick Schenk, he has formed another beautifully restrained character study about moral compromise, moral consequence, and redemption that is hard to come by.