Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Gran Torino

There are great stories, and great characters; the rare times they converge, and you have a classic. Gran Torino has a great character, and a good story; but it just may be a classic. Because Clint has crafted a character we instantly dislike, yet want to spend more and more time with. A character this good can make a minor classic all on his own.

We meet Walt at the funeral of his wife, where he's smoldering as his grandchildren show up, in football jerseys and bare midriffs. His sons mutter to each other about whose kids will disappoint him more. The stage is set- an irascible old man who no one is good enough for, living alone in "the old neighborhood" where he's a final holdout who hasn't sold his house to immigrants. His craggy face is sculpted in a constant sneer; he doesn't like what he sees. The repast is at his home, where his sons mumble with their wives about whether it's time for him to sell it, and his pierced granddaughter is eyeing the classic car that gives the film its title, as she sneaks a smoke in the garage.

Naming a movie after a car when it's not a road movie is an odd choice, but it makes sense. The 1972 Gran Torino is rough, unforgiving relic from a bygone era. Walt treasures his- he helped build it on the Ford assembly line, and keeps it looking brand new in his garage or driveway. We never even see him drive it, or take enjoyment from it. He just sits on his porch with his Lab, Daisy, drinking PBR's and sneering at the sorry state of disrepair his Asian neighbors keep their homes in. He's the kind of man who feels great pain at the sight of a patchy lawn. Next door, the family is celebrating the birth of a child. There are two teenagers in the family, a shy, hunched over boy named Thao and a smart and independent girl named Sue.
They are Hmong- the original "boat people" who sided with us in the Vietnam war, and fled here when we retreated. It's to the film's credit that they cast unknowns in the parts, let the actors ad-lib in their own language, and portray their customs. Like Walt, we feel like we're in a foreign country surrounded by them. the infamous "Get off my lawn!" scene, where he aims the M1 Garand he fought with in Korea at some Asian gangbangers ensues when Thao's cousins begin hassling him to join up with them. They stumble onto his lawn, and he goes outside. When Thao's family try to thank him for his help, he tells them to get off his lawn too.



The next day they shower him with gifts- flowers and food. He shuns them, but Sue persists. He may call her names, but they seem to connect because she is a polite and courteous person who is sure of herself. She's not offended or afraid of him. He can't scare her off. Eventually he makes an unlikely bond with her brother Thao, without giving away too much of the plot. Thao and his family, the upright side, keep banging heads with his criminal cousins. But Walt's a fixer. He fixes things. Eventually he's worn down by Sue's hospitality, and goes to a family party. Good food, free beer, and good company get the better of him. He may call them zips or gooks to their faces, but he doesn't hate them. It's apparent that he hates the shabby state of the neighborhood more than anything else.

As I type this, Chris Rock is on my TV telling me when white people can say the word nigger. I think that's just about the only slur not used in this movie. Spook, mick, zip, dago, slope, dragon lady, eggroll, zipperhead, gook, guinea, chink, wop, polack, dogeater. I was just in a forum discussion about whether Walt is racist or not, which I find ridiculous. He's a misanthrope; he says it plainly that he wants to be left alone, and slurs are an easy way to make that so. As the story unfolds, we don't get any obvious revelations of why he is the way he is. It's left to us to piece together. He's a child of the Depression and a veteran of the forgotten war, the Korean conflict. They didn't get parades, or monuments, and our troops retreated in shame. The battle was a slaughter, with stacks of Chinese and Korean soldiers used as sandbags.
The local priest sniffs around too- Walt's wife made him promise to get Walt to give confession, as if she knew the burden he carried. The film eschews the predictable; it is not a revenge tale, and while it is one of redemption, it knows that sometimes we are beyond it. Walt spars verbally with the young pastor, badgers Thao into becoming a man, and faces his own shortcomings- that he never got to know his own sons. The ending is satisfying, but not the one we wanted. Sure, we want to see Dirty Old Man Harry drive around town in his beat-up truck, being a bad-ass and facing down thugs forever. We know he'll fix the problem with the thugs- but we just don't know how.

The movie lives and dies on Eastwood's performance, easily his best in years. Walt is a brick wall; he never blinks, never winks at you. Even his sense of humor is brash. We see him with his barber (Marge's husband from Fargo) trading insults and ethnic slurs, and telling awful jokes with his drinking buddies. Some have said that the Hmong actors are too amateur, but they felt natural to me. It was a great choice, just as shooting on location in Michigan was. We haven't seen the gritty streets of Detroit since Four Brothers and 8 Mile. And the story may not be great, but Eastwood knows just what to tell and what to leave us to figure out. He takes a simple story and makes it gripping, and as much as I like his output, I think this is his most enjoyable movie since Unforgiven.

4.5 out of 5 30-06 rounds.

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