Funny things, old people: until Children of Men happens, they’re an infinitely renewable resource. In their later years, they make movies like The Bucket List, which is impossible to watch more than twenty minutes of before giving up in disgust. Clint Eastwood is an old person who proves himself time and again worth having around. The Only Good Republican™* strikes again with Gran Torino, a movie that shattered what little expectations I went in with.
* Disclaimer! In the immortal words of April O’Neil, “it was a joke!”
Walt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood) lays his beloved wife to rest. At her wake, he laments the lousy nature of his children and grandchildren, and furrows his brow at the gathering of “chinks” that are gathering next door. His neighbourhood has gradually been repopulated by Hmong and various other ethnic minorities, and they have formed gangs. When his neighbour, Thao (Bee Vang) gets involved in gang activity related to Walt’s beloved 1972 Gran Torino, Walt takes an interest in his neighbours and their culture against his better judgement and is surprised by what he finds.
My problem with writing about a movie like Gran Torino – and the reason I’m such a god awful film reviewer – is that part of the joy of it all is discovering it as it is watched. I went in knowing next to nothing about it besides Clint Eastwood being an irascible old racist, and think that it’s for the best to learn about the people who inhabit his shrinking and expanding world first hand. I had no idea even of what the tone would be, and was surprised that Eastwood’s Walt was actually funny in his over the top growling nature. The opening scene is literally a series of people pissing him off in various ways at his wife’s funeral, replete with close ups of him gritting his teeth, scowling and growling at them.
This is not to suggest that Eastwood is simply a caricature: the film is legitimately funny, between its drama. A potentially very heavy subject is leavened with a natural wit that grows from characters who probably aren’t all bad beneath their spiky exteriors. Both Eastwood and Vang turn in strong, performances that suggest a certain nuance far and away from a simple morality play.
The Wrestler left me dubious about the power of redemption, but Gran Torino shows that cynicism does not always pay off. Sometimes people can have positive influences on each other, and there’s no shame in friendship, but there is a certain ill in blindly following something that you’ve been pressured into. It’s another movie that makes me less fond of America; not of its people, but of certain systems that have flourished, and problems that seem to have no solutions. I suppose that, if you look hard enough, this is true of anywhere in the world, but there is a degree of obnoxiousness in wrapping parts of it in a flag.
For his part, Walt is a veteran of the Korean War who was greatly affected by the conflict and has buried most of his feelings. He doesn’t wear his patriotism lightly, although there is a flag hanging out the front of his house. There is a theme of life and death running through the film, helpfully relayed through conversations between Walt and his priest (Christopher Carley). A lot of the film’s strengths are revealed by what isn’t said, and Eastwood does a fine job of balancing showing with telling. Walt’s dialogue is certainly very deliberately didactic – he is, after all, in the habit of teaching lessons, even if that lesson is as simple as “get off my lawn” (albeit spoken with rifle in hand) – but he’s as susceptible to the transmission of knowledge as are the increasingly willing victims of his audience.
At no point does the film actually preach, unless you consider the suggestion that “gangs are bad” is preachy. It’s more important for the characters to learn than it is for the audience, and that’s what you can witness here.
The most interesting idea on offer is the film’s approach to racism: Walt is a terrible racist, but after a while – around the time he stops growling – the words are reduced to meaninglessness. I came to realise that, for people “of a certain age” and, possibly, “of a certain geography”, this is just the way they get by. There’s probably a degree of immigrant politics involved here – in his daily dealings, Walt is a “Pollock”, his barber a “guinea” and his foreman friend a “mick” – but mostly it’s somewhat disturbing to realise that after a while these things wash over you and you kind of “accept” them. Of course, that may vary from viewer to viewer, and I’m not saying that this is the correct approach, just that it’s the way things are done sometimes.
Morgan Freeman has famously said that “the only way to end racism is to stop talking about it”. However, as Morgan Freeman made Wanted of his own free will, I’m going to say that Clint Eastwood wins and Gran Torino shall be allowed to stand. It’s not about racism on any grand scale: it’s about three people, their cultures and their families. That Walt, Thao and his sister Sue all become characters that you care about, regardless of how horrible your first impressions of them may be, renders Gran Torino a success.