Gran Torino opens Friday throughout the Triangle
As an actor, Clint Eastwood is the most distinctly American film icon since John Wayne. As a director, Eastwood's films succeed (if at all) in spite of a languid, vastly overrated filmmaking style that his devotees continue to blindly deify, the same deference again being afforded Woody Allen now that he has churned out a couple of decent films this century.
Few directors can beat thematically rich material into such frothy, underperforming meringue like Eastwood: Among them are Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, Mystic River, Changeling and his 2006 World War II double bill of The Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima.
Gran Torino aims to be the same requiem for his Dirty Harry Callahan persona that Unforgiven fancied itself as for Eastwood's Westerns. Literal translation: Eastwood plays an older version of the same characters inhabiting those earlier films. In the tough urban milieu of Gran Torino, he is Walt Kowalski, a recently widowed Korean war vet and retired auto worker, who whiles away his twilight days rocking on the front porch of his Detroit home, swilling beer and waving his M-1 rifle at anyone who ventures too close to his property. He also aims ire at his feckless family and a fresh-faced Catholic priest (Christopher Carley), who hopes to salvage Walt's eternal soul before the Grim Reaper comes calling (the same religious debate waged in Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby).
However, Walt saves his harshest anger for the changing face of his Highland Park neighborhood, particularly the Hmong family next door. One night, the family's youngest son, Thao (Bee Yang), and a local Asian street gang try to steal Walt's prized 1972 Gran Torino before Walt interrupts and chases them away. A contrite Thao is forced to work off his moral debt to Walt, while Walt becomes exposed to his family, including his sassy older sister, Sue (Ahney Her).
The message of tolerance supposedly at the heart of Gran Torino proves as much a mirage as the pro-feminist lacquer coating the misogynistic Million Dollar Baby and the shallow pacifist posturing of the ultra-violent Unforgiven. After Walt stands up to the Asian delinquents, his female Hmong neighbors lay rewards at the doorstep of their white champion even as he smears them as "fishheads" and "slopes" to their faces. Indeed, Walt spends the majority of the film spewing racial invectives like "chinks," "beaner," "gook," and "spooks" (the conspicuous absence of the N-word is indicative of the film's underlying phoniness.)
Writer Nick Schenk draws a subtle-as-a-sledgehammer parallel between the Asian influx into Walt's neighborhood and the Asian takeover of an automobile industry once dominated by Detroit's Big 3 automakers (and embodied by muscle cars like Ford's Gran Torino); from that Eastwood posits a wider commentary on the lament of lost Americana. However, Eastwood goes several steps further, including scenes in which Walt trades casual barbs with his Italian barber, glares at low-riding Latinos, and confronts a group of black thugs threatening to rape a young girl (this being Eastwood's nihilistic universe, the Asian bangers eventually do that deed) while challenging a white teen sporting a "blackcent" to start acting his own race.
The debate is not whether Eastwood's depiction of multicultural decadence is accurate or exaggerated: The answer depends on one's worldview and environment. The real question is Eastwood's purpose behind the breadth of his portrayal, especially since he never exposes Walt—coarse language aside—as unwise or anything but heroic. In this regard, Gran Torino is less an elegy for Harry Callahan than Eastwood's personal interpretation of The Searchers. But, unlike the Ethan Edwards' awakening in John Ford's epic, the tonal shifts in Walt's character, particularly during the film's final act, feel contrived without the careful groundwork that Eastwood the filmmaker fails to lay.
In the end, a young Asian rides off into the sunset in a figurative embrace of the classic American movie iconography bequeathed by his white benefactor. He gets a car; Eastwood just takes the rest of us for a ride.