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January 9, 2009 |

By Phillip Stephens | Film | January 9, 2009 |

Dirty Harry is fucking old. His once menacing glint is now a wrinkled grimace, his chiseled frame now stiff and gaunt. The old dog is still tough, to be sure, but he’s losing his grip on the world, both physically and spiritually. He’s a living reliquary whose values no longer hold sway in a changing world. But is this Clint Eastwood the man or a persona, a cliché founded in sturdy ideals but no longer plausible in an honest take on the modern world? That’s the interesting question in Gran Torino, where Eastwood seems to be squaring off against himself, both as a 78-year-old sizing up the Grim Reaper and a filmmaker coming to terms with his own canon - Gran Torino navigates a peculiar space between Eastwood’s early phase as an icon of masculinity and his later “serious” films, like the Catholic dirges Mystic River and Million Dollar Baby. He realizes that he’ll be remembered, at least as an actor, for being a cowboy or a snarling vigilante, and maybe he isn’t as happy about that as he used to be. True narrative explorations are more complicated than that, and though many of Eastwood’s later films have been steeped in acclaim, the sheer moral certainty of Harry Callahan is a thing of the past.

Walt Kowalski (Eastwood) has become unmoored by his wife’s death, not necessarily by grief, but because having her around was enough of a reason to put up with the slings and arrows of it all; he was probably never much of an optimist, or even that nice of a guy, but he’d do it to keep her happy. Now that she’s gone Walt can’t find much of a reason to put up with a world that mostly just pisses him off: his grandkids don’t bother to stop giggling and texting at their own grandmother’s funeral; he doesn’t connect with his grown sons, who wallow in their white suburban artifice; his neighborhood has become a slum, roved by ethnic gangs and foreigners he can’t abide. A young, cherub-cheeked priest tries to get him to go to confessional, but Walt sneers, calling the man a “27-year-old virgin who sells superstition to old ladies.” Apparently the heart of Walt’s darkness is more than the intransigence of age; something else has been gnawing at him.

Walt’s neighbors are a fatherless Hmong family with a son, Tao (Bee Vang), a directionless youth too smart to pal around with Hmong gang members but otherwise too meek to fend for himself, content to meander through life and get bossed around by his tougher mom and sister. Tao caves in to pressure from local Hmong goons who want to recruit him, but Tao has to steal a car first - the pristine 1972 Gran Torino in Walt’s garage. Tao bumbles the job, chased away by Walt wielding an M-1. The gang persists in tormenting Tao, and an altercation leads again to Walt and his gun. This time the gesture is seen as heroism by Tao’s family and the other Hmong of the neighborhood, sick of being intimidated by gang members. They take to showering Walt with gifts, oblivious to his dyspeptic grunts and racial slurs - every other word out of the guy’s mouth is “slope” or “gook” or “Zipperhead” (Did Pookie consult on the script?). The Hmong ignore Walt’s rants and epithets, not out of passivity or meekness, but because they correctly see such behavior as the surly cheek of an old grouch; his words have no real hate behind them.

Tao’s family insist on gifts and kind gestures toward Walt, eventually sending Tao to work for him in penance for the botched theft. Walt reacts to everyone with predictable scorn, but slowly starts to realize that these people may actually understand him better than his own family. For one, the Hmong are no strangers to war, having endured the Indochine/Vietnam conflict and siding with the U.S. to their detriment, and Walt is still reeling from things he did in the Korean War. Walt reacts toward Tao (whom he dubs “Toad”) with faux-contempt, damning the poor kid as a “puss” and rudely instructing him in the clichés of manliness: handiwork, construction, crassness and woman-wooing. Of course, behind all of that derision is a growing fondness.

Gran Torino, working from a pretty solid script by Nick Schenk, may not be the best film of the year, but it might be the funniest. I could watch Clint rant and curse and spew racial slurs all day. In the hands of a lesser actor or director, this might have turned into farce, but there’s a generally good balance between seriousness and comedic diversions, and Eastwood has great rapport with the mostly unprofessional Hmong actors surrounding him. Unfortunately, that balance starts to falter when the last act of the film slides into a haze of violence and metaphor-porn that’s a bit tone deaf to everything that came before. Walt needs redemption, after all, and he ain’t going to find it in the confessional booth, especially when the increasingly brutal gang starts to renew its assault on Tao. Walt’s solution to both crises is a bit too heavy-handed and melodramatic; just like in Unforgiven, Eastwood spends the better part of a film deconstructing the taken-for-granted ethos of the genre he’s working with, but then uses a final gesture, a blaze of glory, to reaffirm the tenets he’s just critiqued. I’ve always found this to be a little idiosyncratic. But if Gran Torino isn’t an altogether solid piece of art, it’s certainly a solid piece of entertainment.

Phillip Stephens is the lead critic and book editor for Pajiba. He lives in Fayetteville, Arkansas and wastes his twenties in grad school(s).

Gran Torino / Phillip Stephens

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