Since my father considers westerns to be the pinnacle of artistic achievement in the U.S., my exposure to Clint Eastwood’s oeuvre started young and never stopped; and he has made some of my favorite movies ever. To be fair, he’s made a few clinkers along the way, but for the most part he has maintained his status in my mind as one of the coolest, toughest guys in Hollywood.
I didn’t bother seeing The Changeling (although I won’t rule out ever seeing it) but I was chomping at the bit to catch Gran Torino. Initially, the Mrs. wasn’t interested, and understandably so. In her mind, Eastwood was just “Dirty Harry” so I had to convince her that his later movies are a whole lot more than that (nothing against Dirty Harry in my book, though). After finally relenting, she was pleasantly surprised – she laughed as hard as everyone else in the theatre at the funny bits and admitted that she even cried a little at the end.
Eastwood has said that he will continue to direct movies as long as he can but that his role in this film as Walt Kowalski will probably be his last acting job. If that is true, then I think this is a fine way for him to go out. In many ways, Walt is a sort of summation of every part that Eastwood has played and the character that he does best – a hardened, surly man who adheres to his own worldview no matter what but also has decency, a compassionate streak (however deep it may be buried), and a moral compass that ultimately points true north.
The film opens at the funeral of Walt’s wife in a scene that tells us much about him – he has little patience with his sons and their families (one of Walt’s granddaughters wears a halter-top and a bellybutton piercing to the funeral) and even less use for church and Father Janovich, the earnest young priest presiding at the service. Later, when we see Walt at home we learn that he is retired from 40 years working in a Ford plant, he is a Korean War veteran, and that he is one of the last few white residents in his Detroit neighborhood. Walt’s social life, such as it is, mainly involves trading off-color jokes with other old-timers at his neighborhood bar, trading racial barbs with his Italian barber, and scowling at his Hmong neighbors, whose grandmother scowls right back at him.
As the story progresses Walt is forced to deal repeatedly with his neighbors and the persistent Janovich who promised Walt’s wife that he would get Walt to go to confession. Despite his reflexive dislike for religion, teenagers, and non-whites, Walt begins to form a relationship both with Janovich and with Thao and Sue, the teenaged son and daughter of the Hmong family.
You probably know where the story is going, but the pleasure here is in the execution, not in the surprises (although the movie does offer its share). Walt’s interactions with his neighbors are initially awkward and hilarious as cultures and worldviews clash. As Walt’s better nature comes out and he takes the fatherless Thao under his wing to try and “man him up,” he develops empathy for the kids, leading to several emotionally satisfying scenes. I especially enjoyed Walt’s clashes with the priest, as they both realize that the other has something to say that is worth hearing. I also appreciated that while Janovich may be inexperienced and a little naïve, he is far above the stereotypical ineffectual buffoon or hypocrite that you usually see religious leaders portrayed as in Hollywood movies. Best of all, Walt doesn’t make a miraculous 180 degree turn and become some politically-correct neighborhood saint by the end of the movie; his change is gradual, subtle, and hard-earned; and all the more believable because of these qualities.
The story addresses a load of heavy issues (faith, redemption, generation and cultural gaps, racism, honesty, manhood, responsibility, aging, family, and the toll of violence) without getting heavy-handed until the climax. It’s not Eastwood’s best film. Like I said, the climax is heavy-handed; and some of the actors just aren’t up to the demands of their parts. Also, it’s not for the easily offended: f-bombs are dropped frequently along with virtually every racial slur you have ever heard and maybe some you haven’t. But it offers stuff to think about, Eastwood’s usual no nonsense direction, and a solid, meaty story that manages to engage every emotional response. And considering that some of the other movies currently scoring big at the box office include treats like Paul Blart: Mall Cop, Bride Wars, and Underworld: Rise of the Lycans – you could do a whole lot worse.