Friday, January 9, 2009

Gran Torino: Compelling ride

Gran Torino (2008) • View trailer for Gran Torino
Four stars (out of five). Rating: R, for violence and pervasive profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.9.09
Buy DVD: Gran Torino • Buy Blu-Ray: Gran Torino (+ BD-Live) [Blu-ray]

Loneliness can be painful beyond endurance.

In the case of Walt Kowalski, taciturn by nature and isolated by choice and circumstance, solitude has magnified his worst characteristics and all but destroyed his better nature. Gran Torino opens as Walt buries his beloved wife, obviously hating to put himself on public display during the church service and food-laden reception that demand his personal participation.
Hoping to "man up" his young neighbor, and help the teenage Theo (Bee Vang,
left) develop some swagger and self-confidence, Walt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood,
right) coaches the boy in the proper art of filthy male banter, using his own
good-natured prickly relationship with Martin (John Carroll Lynch) as an
example. The results prove quite amusing.

Dismayed by his adult sons and their families — and most particularly by a self-centered teenage granddaughter who lacks the respect to dress properly in church (a deftly sketched character whom we love to hate on sight!) — Walt's reflexive expression is a perpetual sneer of disgust, curled lip matching a hostile stare and simmering burn so volcanic that it could melt the polar ice cap.

In short, a perfect role to mark the return of Clint Eastwood as actor.

At first glance, we might imagine that Walt could be "Dirty" Harry Callahan at the tail end of a long and discouraging career, but that's far too superficial; Kowalski's demons are more complicated, and buried far deeper. As the film progresses, we gradually learn of Walt's Korean War service, and his inability to move past the awful memories of that kill-or-be-killed environment.

Initially, though, we're much too amused — and dismayed — by Walt's short temper and reflexive, contemptuous intolerance; the man slings ghastly racial slurs like most people use nouns and verbs. He proudly maintains his home and yard in a neighborhood once filled with people he knew as friends and fellow auto plant workers; now, most of the other dwellings have gone to seed, and many are inhabited by Hmong immigrants Walt lacks the perception or willingness to separate from the faceless Asians he fought in Korea.

In short, Walt has no use for anybody: not his estranged family, not the baby-faced priest determined to punch through Kowalski's reserve, and particularly not for the gangbanging Asian, Latino and African-American teens who, he feels, typify all the other unwanted people who have "invaded" his neighborhood.

But because this is Eastwood, who long ago perfected the ability to draw depths of emotion from stoic reserve, we see beyond the mask, and to the pain beneath. Although determined to maintain appearances, Walt is doing no more than marking time: sitting on his porch with a daily 12-pack of beer and his faithful dog, growling while the pooch remains silent, growing progressively more discouraged by the world around him ... and waiting to die.

Although Walt isn't immediately aware of it, the adjacent house becomes the setting for a crisis: Shy young Thao (Bee Vang), finally old enough to be noticed by the local Hmong gang, is "conscripted" despite his own half-hearted protests and strong objections from his mother and older sister, Sue (Ahney Her). Lacking the spine to resist these older boys, Thao is ordered to "prove" himself by stealing the gleaming 1972 Gran Torino that has been Walt's pride and joy since the day he helped roll it off the Ford assembly line.

Naturally, Thao gets caught, and finds himself staring down the wrong end of Walt's meticulously cleaned M-1 rifle. The encounter passes without incident, and Walt figures he's frightened the boy enough to keep him away for good. But Thao's failure in the eyes of the Hmong gang prompts an ugly late-night confrontation, during which Walt is forced to intervene.

Although not the slightest bit frightened by these young thugs, Walt nonetheless realizes he has come to their attention: not good. More importantly, he finds himself the neighborhood's reluctant hero — the man willing to stand up to the gangbangers — and, as a result of Hmong traditions involving esteem and respect, he starts finding all sorts of gifts on his doorstep.

Try as he might, Walt can't get rid of these people ... and, at first, having them be nice to him is much worse than having existed in a climate of mutual rudeness.

But then Walt starts to genuinely pay attention to his neighbors, and he perceives all of the nobler old-world qualities that he never sees in his spoiled, callow sons, daughters-in-law and grandchildren. He also recognizes that Thao needs a father figure, and seems to possess the quiet dignity and integrity that would make such a project worth Walt's time.

Despite himself, Walt slowly — oh so slowly — finds a reason to care again.

Gran Torino is another of Eastwood's many recent explorations of clashing cultures and the powerful bonds of working-class neighborhood ties. As was the case with 1992's Unforgiven, Nick Schenk's script seems tailor-made to Eastwood's talents, and the to gravitas he naturally brings to a character who can be viewed as an iconic aging warrior: not quite over the hill, and still feisty as hell.

No surprise, then, that Eastwood elected to direct himself again, for the first time since 2004's Million Dollar Baby; Walt Kowalski is an actor's dream, and the character-driven screenplay's moral foundation speaks volumes about the way people must step up and look out for each other, particularly in dangerous settings.

The entire project is something of a Cinderella story for Schenk: the sort of debut feature sale that fuels the hopes of thousands of other Hollywood wannabes. Schenk, who shares story credit with Dave Johannson, based his narrative on his own time working at a Minnesota factory job with many Hmong families. And despite the degree to which Walt's character seems to have been constructed with Eastwood in mind, Schenk insists not:

"Walt's a bit like everybody's shop teacher," he says, in the press notes, "or even your dad, when he's watching you reassemble your bike and screwing it all up."

Whatever the writer's intentions, he delivered a powerful drama that Eastwood — as is his nature — saw no reason to change, en route to the big screen.

The supporting characters are equally important, from Christopher Carley's earnest, outmatched but forever game Father Janovich ("a 27-year-old, over-educated virgin," Walt grouses, as he steadfastly refuses to attend confession), to John Carroll Lynch as Martin, Walt's local barber, another of the rare remaining WASP fixtures who trades playful racial slurs with his cranky regular customer.

Vang and Her are acting newcomers; Gran Torino is their first film role, and both deliver impressive work. Her is particularly fine, her numerous shared scenes with Eastwood displaying a natural ease and poise that elude many acting veterans. Once having met Walt, Sue turns the crusty old coot into something of a project, but Her's performance is shaded so carefully that we know the young woman isn't making fun of her American neighbor, nor does she ever rise to his reflexive racist baiting.

Eastwood's son, Kyle, and Michael Stevens contribute the film's spare but poignant score, and the gravel-voiced Clint supplies a vocal for the song that plays over the closing credits: a final broad smile as we listen to the lyrics, and realize precisely what is being eulogized.

The nicely shaded character turns aside, Gran Torino ultimately shares the moral imperative that has fueled all of Eastwood's recent films: the terrible price demanded by bloodshed, the toll it exacts on one's soul, and the grimly inflexible knowledge that violence inevitably begets more violence ... and that other answers, as a result, are necessary.

That's six magnificent films in as many years, Clint.

What's next?

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