Something mystical has happened to Clint Eastwood. Back in the eighties he was looked-upon as an ageing, increasingly-foolish has-been who was only worth a damn when packing a .44 Magnum. His habit of casting friends and, especially, lovers in his films made him a laughing stock and that was not greatly helped by his brief foray into local politics.
Every now and then he’d make a film like Pale Rider (1985) or Bird (1988), which would give everyone a moment of contemplative re-assessment, but it would then be followed by something like Heartbreak Ridge (1986) or The Rookie (1990) and he was right back there on everyone’s hit list.
Then came Unforgiven (1992), a film which won several Oscars (including Best Film and Best Director for Clint himself) and made both a popular and critical audience sit up and pay attention to him anew. Unforgiven looked back at the career of a violent man and counted the cost. It was, to most everyone’s mind, Eastwood nailing the coffin-lid on his own career as the death-dealing Man With No Name. It was his attempt at cleaning-up Dirty Harry, his shot at redemption and, as themes in Hollywood movies go, redemption is the biggy.
If his life were a movie, that would have been its final scene: Oscar acceptance speech, standing ovation, roll credits.
But his life isn’t a cliché-ridden movie and, remarkably, in the seventeen years since Unforgiven, as his early sixties rolled into his late seventies, where most directors and almost all actors would have hung up their spurs, he has gone on to do much of his best, most ambitious, most consistent and most personal work. He has finally proven that he’s vastly more versatile as a director than he ever was as an actor.
As with fifty-something directors like Spielberg and Little Ritchie Cunningham, seventy-nine year-old Clint has taken to making two films a year. Gran Torino is his second this year (and he already has his Nelson Mandela pic, Invictus in the can for next year).
Gran Torino is a story about … you guessed it … redemption … and it’s a Western. Yes, I know it’s set in modern-day urban Michigan, but its still a Western. Bear with me.
The film begins at the end … at the end of Walt Kowalski’s marriage, with him standing, statue-like at the side of his wife’s coffin, glaring disapprovingly at the family he simply doesn’t like. He sees what his granddaughter is wearing and growls. As his son observes: “There’s nothing anyone can do that won’t disappoint the old man.”
The truth is, he’s frightened and he’s alone and he responds to that like the old war-horse he is, by being aggressive. He glares despairingly at the Hmong Chinese family which have moved in next door to him and rumbles “Damn barbarians” not quite far enough under his breath for them not to hear. Yes, he’s a racist and yes, the fact that he’s of Polish extraction and therefore an immigrant himself, is significant.
His life revolves around his experiences in the fifties in Korea and now, without his wife to temper or distract him, the memories of the horrors he witnessed and perpetrated come back to overwhelm him fuelled, of course, by the Eastern faces he sees every time he glances over the lawn at his neighbours. As his padre ruefully comments, Walt knows more about death than life.
He also knows a lot about his 1972 Gran Torino which he never drives, save in and out the garage, and which sits on the drive where he can polish and admire it. It, like him, is a remnant of a different America. In this year or all years, when America finally wakes from its American Dream and puts a black man in The White House, when its automotive industry is experiencing the same meltdown as the rest of our economy, this wide-beamed gas-guzzler stands on Walt’s drive as a timely symbol of the passing of the ‘old’ vision of America.
As Walt comments, ruefully, he spent his entire post-military career building American cars (including the one he owns) and now his son sells Japanese ones. That encapsulates the generation gap in his family right there.
The culture gap between him and his neighbours is, surprisingly, an easier one to bridge. A scuffle on the Chinese family’s lawn spills over onto Walt’s and his response is pure Clint … the hairs go up on the back of the neck as he levels his rifle at the camera and growls out of one side of his mouth “Get off my lawn” a line which, delivered in that context, by the voice, accompanied by that squinty-eyed glare, will become another one of those Clint catch-phrases which develops a life of its own.
It’s a deliberate reference back to Unforgiven’s William Munny and, beyond that, to Josey Wales. It represents the way that the street gangs are something that Walt can identify with, a clear and present danger that he knows how to deal with. But this trademark, stereotypically Eastwoodian scene, will have repercussions because the boys he has shamed are the local gang. This matter will return to haunt him. But, meanwhile, the film shifts gear. The gratitude of the Chinese community and the sarcastic, honest intelligence of the neighbour’s daughter, Sue (Ahney Her), slowly melt the old man’s icy exterior and he slowly begins to realise that he has more in common with these “gooks” than with his own family.
This détente, through clever writing and intelligent performances, manages to stay just the right-side of daytime-TV-maudlin as the film’s middle act explores that age-old affinity between old-age and youth, between the old soldier and the grand-kids of the people he (almost) once fought.
The scenes Walt has with Sue and her shy brother, Thao (Bee Vang), are made all the better for the thin vein of humour that runs through them, which counterpoints the ominous shadow of Walt’s occasional coughing fits. Again, this stays just this side of melodrama because the dialogue is so economical and delivered with an unwaveringly wry, ironic tone. As I watched him in his tool-shed, affectionately patronising young Thao, I realised that Clint has turned into Walter Matthau, a loveable curmudgeon. Who’d’a’thought?
Walt’s wife’s last wish was for him to go to the church for Confession. But one has to be careful what one wishes for … because the redemption Walt has in mind is not what his wife, his priest or what we expect.
Like many a Western hero before him, he sits on the porch of his wooden house, with his dog, smoking and waiting for the bad-guys to turn up as, inevitably, they do. The build-up to the show-down is dealt with with an elegance and an eloquence of which John Ford would have approved. And, for a Western, however it dresses itself, I can think of no greater complement than that.
Who can tell …
And, for those easily distracted by shiny objects – I give this film a rating of: CCCC
Dir: Clint Eastwood
Writers: Nick Schenk, Dave Johannson
Stars: Grandad Clint, Ahney Her, Bee Vang, Christopher Carley
Dur: 116 mins
Image © Warner Bros