If one thing is apparent, at least to those who’ve been following Clint Eastwood’s career in recent years, it is that he’s taken a different approach lately as a director. Instead of taking big well-rounded splatter shots at Oscars, as was the case with Million Dollar Baby and Letters from Iwo Jima, he has taken to a more targeted approach. This trend was very apparent a few months back with Changeling. Eastwood made a solid, but relatively one dimensional film that was tweaked just enough to be a serious Oscar grab for Angelina Jolie. And had Jolie’s Oscar grabbiness not been so blatant, it might have worked.
We see a similar theme with Gran Torino, in which Eastwood plays on both sides of the camera as director and as Walt Kowalski, an iron-willed Korean war vet whose wife has recently passed away, leaving him alone in their old house surrounded by an ever-growing population of Hmong neighbors. And much to the dismay of Spike Lee, Walt is a staunch racist. We are talking blatant, irreverent and uncompromising racism here. Yet somehow it is still very tastefully done — only Clint can make that happen, of that I am convinced.
When one of Walt’s young Mhong neighbors named Thao (Bee Vang) tries to steal one of his last remaining prized possessions, his ’72 Gran Torino. Still gleaming as it did the day Walt himself helped roll it off the assembly line decades ago, the Gran Torino brings his shy teenage neighbor Thao into his life when Hmong gang-bangers pressure the boy into trying to steal it. The event brings Thao and Walt together, forcing Thao to learn to become and man and Walt to deal with his long-held prejudices and possibly fulfill his dying wife’s wish for him to take confession.
It is a very simple, yet poignant story about the generational and cultural gaps that we face every day. While poignant, the story doesn’t ever reach beyond these core themes. This works for and against the film. It helps focus on a really splendid performance from Eastwood, who is essentially staring down the Academy this year and demanding a Best Actor award. Whether or not he gets it is a different story entirely, but his performance is certainly worth some recognition as he delivers a character with real depth, a vessel of buried anger and guilt. Eastwood’s performance really drives the tone of the film, one that is very sober and methodical as it makes its way toward a very clearly mapped ending. Predictable, yes, but this film — which was written by newcomers Dave Johannson and Nick Schenk — isn’t looking to pull any punches. The audience is drawn into Walt’s pain and we are expected to go through a transformation with him.
And while some of you might no think this sounds like an exciting movie, remember that appearances can be deceiving. The film plays out with a series of unintentionally (or so it would seem) funny moments at the hands of either an Eastwood scowl or a blatantly racist interaction between Walt and one of his neighbors. It’s possible that not everyone will find this entertaining, as I have a twisted sense of humor, but who knows.
In the end we find Gran Torino to be a relatively one dimensional film, anchored by a really great performance from its director/star. For the first time in a long time we are treated to a Clint Eastwood scowl-a-thon, which is never a bad thing. Having said that, it is important to note that Gran Torino isn’t an overwhelmingly powerful film, just a good film with a simple story and one great performance. If you’re not into that, then you might want to save a spot on your Netflix queue and see this one at a later date. Otherwise, get out there and see the most tastefully racist film of 2008…