Gran Torino

Clint Eastwood, Bee Vang, Brooke Chia Thao, Chee Thao, and Ahney Her in Gran Torino (dir. Clint Eastwood, 2008).

The critical controversy surrounding Gran Torino is that Walt Kowalski (Eastwood) is a largely unrepentant racist: he calls the Hmong family living next door to him "gooks" and other unpleasant things, even after he develops fond feelings for them and befriends the directionless son, Thao (Bee Vang), who tries to steal his precious 1972 Gran Torino in a botched gang initiation rite. The ideological problem, in plain terms, is that Eastwood's character is depicted as simultaneously bigoted and likeable. Obviously this sends a clear message that racism is endearing, and as a result audience members will leave the theater hurling epithets at minorities and expecting that people will find it cute. A small percentage of viewers, it is true, may realize that it is a work of fiction and not an educational filmstrip on social etiquette.

It was pointed out to me after the movie by the people I watched it with that Bee Vang is a terrible actor. I guess this is true in retrospect, but it didn't bother me. He's such a likeable kid. The whole movie is immensely likeable. And if its likeability weren't in many ways troubling, it wouldn't be as resonant as it is.

At one point, Thao's sister Sue (Ahney Her) tells Walt that she wishes he had been her father. Her own father, she says, was "old school." Walt points out that he's old school too. "But you're an American," she replies. We're not told what that means exactly, but it's clearly supposed to be a good thing. I think it has something to do with allowing people (including oneself) to screw up. This is certainly presented as a major theme of the film, thus the subplot about Walt needing to go to confession so he can cast away the "burden" of the horrible things he did in the Korean War. And that's as good a way as any of describing what is best and worst about being American: the idea that you can be forgiven for just about anything, especially if you're charming enough.

As a director, Eastwood pushes the adjective "workmanlike" as close as it can get to "excellent." He's like Walt: he has a garage full of a bazillion tools specially made to cover just about any task that might come up. He has a masterful sense of detail, fluid narrative energy, restrained symbolic instincts--if at the end the total structure is still that of a 1980s made-for-TV movie, it is at least the one that you watch again whenever it is rerun. And as an actor, he is tops in his field (the field of stony, snarling, antisocial scarecrows who must one day make hard choices that are too big to be contained by their day-to-day moral world views, and that thus explode them). Like John Wayne, he embodies both the romantic and the repellent sides of conservatism at once. He performs jingoistic, self-destructive, guilt-ridden acts of paternalistic heroism for you so you don't have to get your hands bloody. In return, all he asks is that he gets to call you a pussy. I treasure the man. I can't help it.

Nutshell synopsis: combines the best aspects of About Schmidt and Death Wish.


Michael Kelleher, Buffalo, NY said...

Great review, esp, the conclusion.

Jordan said...

Tears of joy, you make me cry them.

zzi said...

If it was a foreign film the critics would have hailed it a masterpiece.