' Cinema Romantico: Gran Torino

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Gran Torino

There is simply not another person who has ever lived who could have made and starred in "Gran Torino" other than Clint Eastwood. It's just that simple. (Charles Bronson, you say? Nope. The bonding with the kids would not have felt as natural. But I'm getting ahead of myself.) As aging Korean War vet Walt Kowalski, a bigot and a racist of the highest order, who subsists on beef jerkey and a bounty of Pabst (Blue Ribbon), while keeping an eye on everything and everyone from the vantage point of his porch, Eastwood squints and growls his way through a storyline that, quite frankly, would have been absurd in the hands of anyone else. Yeah, it's still a little absurd anyway, but not as absurd.

As the movie opens Walt has just lost his wife. His sons (who strangely look alike - I say strangely because movie sons rarely ever look alike) don't seem to know their dad and he doesn't seem to know them. They want him to move into a retirement home. I think you can figure out that does not happen.

From his porch Walt sees the Korean family next door. He does not care for them. He calls them a few names (none of which I will be repeating here). But when a gang headed up by the cousin of Thao (Bee Vang), the boy next door, arrives and tries to initiate Thao to their life by having him steal Walt's beloved 1972 Gran Torino, well, Walt's gonna' have to get involved.

He stalks the street like an avenging angel (an avenging angel who likes to spit chaw, that is), pulling real guns and imaginary guns, to alternately save Thau and his sister Sue (Ahney Her) from riff-raff in the neighborhood. He seems to believe only in himself, nothing else, not even God, as we see whenever the young Catholic priest asked by Walt's late wife to keep tabs on her husband after her death turns up.

"Why didn't you call the police?" asks the priest after one confrontation with the ornery gang.

"I prayed they would show up," Walt replies, "but no one answered."

Does he bond with Thau and Sue? Well, of course. Would they be a little more aghast as he continually makes discriminant remarks directly at them while breaking bread? Probably. But then I liked how the movie did not really soften Walt in any way as the movie progressed. The unflattering names he calls people at the start of the film are the same unflattering names he is calling them at the end of the film. He helps the family, obviously, most especially Thau, getting him out of his shell and making a massive sacrifice to change the boy's life, but not by having to sacrifice who and what he is. Refreshing.

Eastwood makes Walt as believable as is possible for such a character. He offers a world of insight with but a lone grunt. He makes lines that on paper probably did not amount to much howlingly hilarious. (My favorite: "What are you peddling today, padre?") Any other 70 year old man in these situations would look so far out of his element the entire film would stop dead in its tracks but Eastwood keeps it rolling.

And with him also behind the camera his famously economical filmmaking style also lends a helping hand here where in other films (like "Changeling") it fails him. If this film had employed an abundance of slow motion shots or pop music or artfully violent scenes it would have descended into vigilante genre madness. Eastwood just shows these people going about their business in a fairly real world.

(I must mention there is one utterly disastrous moment during the film's running time. It is a shot that occurs near the end and involves placing Clint in a familiar, shall we say, pose. You'll know it when you see it. Oh, Joseph and Mary, you'll know. Was that shot really necessary? I mean, did Paul Haggis guest direct that shot?)

I had a strange sensation the entire time while watching "Gran Torino". I kept thinking none of this should be working. But it was working. Clint Eastwood, man, is an almost unbelievable force of nature.

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