Saturday, January 24, 2009

Movie Review: Clint Eastwood's "Gran Torino" Rides Like a Charm

Clint Eastwood proves that he is at the top of his game with his latest effort, Gran Torino. Revolving around the story of Walt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood), a retired Ford employee and decorated Korean War vet, the movie explores themes of loss, coming to terms, friendship, and ultimately, sacrifice and redemption.

Set in the present day, the film begins with Walt burying his wife of many years. His grown-up children have strained relations with him, and he sets to living out the rest of his years wandering about in his home, tinkering around in his garden, sitting on his porch drinking beer and taking care of his prized possession, a 1972 Ford Gran Torino. He refuses to fulfill his wife’s dying wish, to confess to a "27-year-old, over-educated, virgin priest."

He is bitter about many things, mainly about how the world has changed from his viewpoint, and how his neighborhood has slowly been encroached upon by a group of Asians known as Hmongs. He has a fast and dirty mouth, and isn’t the type of guy who would waste a second of his remaining days on anything sentimental.

The gangs that roam his neighborhood force Kowalski out of his self-imposed exile. In a twist of fate, the only piece of property that is valuable to him (his Gran Torino) sets the stage for a series of events that chip away at Walt’s hard exterior, ultimately leading up to the most climactic ending that I’ve seen in recent years.

Based on a story written by first-timer Nick Schenk, Eastwood makes the film work mainly on the basis of his screen image. He summons shades of every major character he has played: the tough Man with No Name in A Fistful of Dollars, the jaded, disgruntled cop in Dirty Harry, the widowed avenger in The Outlaw Josey Wales, the terminally ill singer-drifter in Honkytonk Man, the avenging preacher in Pale Rider, the foul-mouthed drill sergeant Thomas Highway in Heartbreak Ridge, and the retired assassin Will Munny called back into action one more time in Unforgiven. The only significant difference in Gran Torino is that the gun that he has held in his hand for so many years has been replaced by, among other things, a finger and a lighter, which plays a major role in the heart-wrenching climax.

Those who are not familiar with Eastwood’s previous work may find this movie bland and politically incorrect, as Walt Kowalski growls and grunts throughout the film, calling out every available racial epithet one can think of. I would then suggest going back and checking out his previous films to get in context with Torino. It is all at the same time dramatic, dark, suspenseful, and surprisingly humorous. But without over-analyzing, the film is simply about one man’s initial refusal to accept change; as he slowly yields, he finds his own redemption.

There are moments in the film that are quite comical, mostly involving Kowalski’s “mentoring” the young Thao (played by Bee Vang), but it is always balanced out mainly by the presence of the other essential characters: the young pragmatic priest (Christopher Carley) who continually hounds Kowalski to confess his sins, and Thao’s older sister Sue (Ahney Her), who introduces Walt to the Hmongs and eventually serves as Walt’s trigger to play out his final act.
Much has been said about Gran Torino being Eastwood’s last acting role. Having watched the film, I wish it isn’t. At 78, he anchors the film with his larger than life presence, displaying blatant machismo, shades of classic humor, and quiet sensitivity, in a role that demands Academy Award recognition. He plays it as he sees it, both as actor and director; you will not find over-the-top, method acting here. Essentially, it is Eastwood playing Eastwood directed by Eastwood, and, all things considered, it is probably one the finest acting jobs he has done thus far. Compared to today’s fast-paced, effects-ridden contemporary films, this movie comes out of nowhere to remind of you of life’s basic mores and values by none other than the anti-hero himself. It is also difficult to find a role befitting a man of his age and stature, so much can be said about Eastwood's nose for the good story by Schenk.

Words like “masterpiece” or phrases like “tour de force” seem clich├ęd and misleading, so it is hard to summon up a definitive word to describe the themes and feelings that Gran Torino evokes, but there is a piece of dialogue in the movie that mentions the word “bittersweet.” It goes something like this: “It’s bitter because of the pain, but sweet because you’re at peace.” Rest in peace, Clint. But only for a while, because knowing the way you work, you won’t stop.

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