Gran Torino (2008)

Clint Eastwood continues his popular series of films with a tale of a man with a violent past who must help a young whippersnapper along in life. The film is, of course, Unforgiven 3 (following the previous two installments Unforgiven and Million Dollar Baby). However, with Morgan Freeman’s presence gone, both in voiceover and acting form, maybe, just maybe, this film has a chance of being forgivable.

Walt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood) is a cantankerous old man who disapproves of everything around him. He disapproves of his children, his Asian neighbors and his new priest who conducts his wife’s funeral. Now left alone, Kowalski spends his days on the porch, where he notices the young man next door Thou Vang Lor (Bee Vang) is a wussy. In his own odd way, Kowalski takes Thao under his wings while also singlehandedly staving off the local gang.

Kowalski decides to make a man out of him, but his idea of manhood is laughable at best. Manliness by his book consists of cursing like a sailor, being as racist as humanly possible and never backing down from a fight. The problem is that these things only work if your Clint Eastwood, otherwise you’ll end up taking a beating every day. The film even goes so far as to say something along these lines, but actions speak louder than words and the his behavior throughout the film overrides the one little line of dialogue.

Also, at this point in his career, the physicality of Eastwood as a presence is waning. Once again, the film makes concessions for this by having Eastwood fail physically when it comes to certain tasks, but the idea that he can instill fear into some of these young people is pretty laughable. Part of it simply is at this point Eastwood is such a weary presence. He delivers lines now with the smoothness of sandpaper and doesn’t have the deliberate tone that once made his moments of defiance cool.

At this point his anti-violence message has worn itself think. Yes grandpa Eastwood, I know violence is bad. Yes, I know I shouldn’t try to be Blondie because” it’s a hell of a thing, killing a man.” Still, I’ll take this kind of simple-minded moralizing over the vapidly emptiness and excess of something like Kick-Ass. In that way, I suppose it’s still a relevant media message that refuses to glamorize or romanticize the violence in any way.

However, I have to say of Eastwood’s trio of dramas (which include Unforgiven and Million Dollar Baby), this one has the most plausible and effective ending. For once, I think the message of the film actually aligns with the plot. Some might not find it as cathartic or satisfying, but it is actually consistent. Actually, gauging by the fact that this is in the top 250 of IMDb (and above both Unforgiven and Million Dollar Baby), I’m guessing that most people liked the ending as well.

I also enjoy the aesthetics of the film. The understated and under-lit visuals of the film fit the sinister nature of the character and add an extra sense of atmosphere to the picture. It subliminally makes a connection to an aesthetic we might see in a war film or a violently stylized picture which feeds even more into the thematic elements of the picture.

I haven’t liked any of Eastwood’s big directorial efforts (except Changeling which most people have forgotten about by now), but of those I’ve seen I have to say that this one was the only one I didn’t find hypocritical or inconsistent. But by saying the film is consistent, I’m saying it’s consistently not good. It’s the best of the three I’ve seen, if only because it doesn’t have a horribly ending. It’s probably the most entertaining as well as there’s nothing like watching a politically incorrect Eastwood espouse everything that’s wrong about everything. Sure, it’s laughably bad, but that’s part of the fun.

© 2010 James Blake Ewing