Director: Clint Eastwood / Writer: Nick Schenk / DoP: Tom Stern / Editor: Joel Cox
Cast: Clint Eastwood / Chris Carley / Bee Vang / Ahney Her / Dreama Walker / John Carroll Lynch
America. The land of the free…
Clint Eastwood’s latter period as a Director, has focussed on aspects of ‘The American Experience’, since parting ways with the Old West in 1992’s Unforgiven. As a result, we’ve had a comment on absolute power in J. Edgar (as well as some actual Absolute Power in ‘97). The birth of a soul/pop crossover sound in Jersey Boys. A biopic of Chris Kyle, America’s favourite sniper and the latest, in which pilot Chesley Sullenberg (a.k.a. Tom Hanks) puts down on the Hudson River in what some are calling a Miracle. On the, err, Hudson.
Gran Torino fits neatly into this template and for all its faults – and there are a few – it can be seen both as an accomplished (though heavy-handed) social commentary and part of a wider filmography by an accomplished director in his productive, reflective twilight. ‘Torino also marks the final acting credit for a man reluctant to appear ‘a wreck’ on-screen, though at 78 when this filmed, he was still a formidable screen presence.
But enough preamble: what’s the film like? It opens with promise: Eastwood’s observing family members as they arrive for his wife’s funeral. Of particular interest to us, is the barely-concealed contempt for his two sons, sat out in the pews and bitching to each other about their curmudgeonly father, like a couple of fishwives. So, it’s a family estranged then and even this early, one feels that the now-departed mother might’ve been the glue that kept all this anger in-check. The script – and both its Director and lead – are working hard here, to establish this dynamic so early. It continues with a boilerplate sermon from the Padre, Father Janovich (a perfectly cast Chris Carley), that even Eastwood (as yet, we still don’t know his character’s name) struggles to accept, muttering ‘Jesus!’ out of exasperation at its soporific banality.
The tone of alienation – of being a stranger to your family – continues at the wake held back at the house, where Eastwood has a key exchange with his bubble-headed Granddaughter Ashley (Dreama Walker in a thankless role), when he catches her secretly smoking in the garage. This is our first glimpse of Eastwood’s pride and joy: a ‘72 Ford Gran Torino Fastback, with a steering column fitted by him, when he worked in the factory. He says, almost with pride, that it was built ‘before you were born’, as if it’s a relic from a happier, simpler time, before disappointing children begat more disappointing children… The inability of these generations to connect – for one side to see the humanity in the other – is telling. Before the wake’s over however, there are still two key exchanges to get through. First, his new neighbours – South East Asians? – turn-up, asking to borrow jump leads for a car; a request that he balks at. Second, the Padre turns-up to pay his respects and in their stilted greeting, we learn the name of Clint’s character: Walt Kowalski. To business, then: The late Dorothy (RIP) had apparently asked Fr. Janovich to ‘keep an eye’ on Walt and encourage him to make confession, to which he replies the following: ‘Well, I confess that I never really cared for church much; the only reason I went was because of her. And I confess that I have no desire to confess to a boy who’s just out of the Seminary’. If it reads like vanilla, the sauce is all up on the screen.
With no time to dwell, the scene then shifts to the Asians next door, where a christening ceremony is taking place. We are afforded a glimpse of their tight family network, rituals and customs and zero-in on a conversation in which the youngest son of the house, Thao (newcomer Bee Vang), is under pressure to step-up and ‘be a man’. Ugh: ‘it’s the same everywhere!’ is the correct response and we have screenwriter Nick Schenk to thank for pushing that particular button because, right there, is where we see the ‘old fashioned’ values that Walt holds so dear, so what’s it going to take to get him to cross-over to the dark side of his prejudice and see the light? Whatever it is, has to wait a little longer, as there’s more establishing business to get through first, such as a shot of Walt’s immaculate house and lawn, compared to its shabby neighbours. As Walt sweeps the yard, he mutter about ‘the Chinks moving in’, only for the matriarch sat on her own porch, to question why he hasn’t moved out! She even copies Walt in hocking-up a grolly, except hers is flippin’ gnarly.
That done, the film moves things-on from this slow-pace, with Thao bullied by his cousins Spider (Doua Moua) and Smokie (Sonny Vue) into joining their gang which, as far as I can tell, do little but cruise the ‘hood in a mid-Nineties Civic saloon, that’s lumbering under the weight of a whale-tail spoiler that could earn good money doubling as a helipad… I’ll call them ambitious though, as the initiation test they set for poor Thao? Steal Walt’s ‘Torino: yeah, like that’s ever going to work, you numbskulls… Still, it builds Thao’s character (as an easily-led dreamer), establishes an antagonism between Walt and the neighbours and after a second skirmish on the lawn, gives Walt an excuse to dig-out his old service rifle and threaten ‘whoever wants some’. As a result, Walt’s porch is soon garlanded with flowers and he’s presented with food – lots of food – by Thao’s extended family, who want to thank him for chasing off the Honda Gang. Walt’s diet since the funeral might’ve been little more than beer and beef jerky, but even when told he’s a hero, he can’t say any more than ‘I kept a bunch of jabbering Gooks off my lawn, is all’; even a simple ‘Thank you’ is beyond this old grouch.
At which point the Padre turns up for another try at getting-through to Walt. This time, Walt’s antipathy has begun to wear-down and the two men reach a mutual understanding of sorts, with Walt saying ‘The thing that haunts a man the most, is what he isn’t ordered to do’, when explaining life in the Korean War. It’s the ‘isn’t’ bit that’s so effective here, with Walt hinting at dark secrets and self-sacrifice; character traits unseen in either his sons or Grandkids and yet again, I’m left wondering if his neighbours are earning his respect in this regard.
To close-out Act One, we get a sparky exchange of friendly insults between Walt and Martin, his barber (a droll turn from John Carroll Lynch). It’s an illustration of how men are – how they should be – in Walt’s worldview. He is human, then; he’s just selective about when – and to whom – he shows it.
Act Two begins with Walt rescuing Thao’s sister, Sue (Ahney Her, in a picture-stealing performance), from a gang of young blacks. Tribes: that’s an important aspect of this picture. Polish-Americans. Latinos. Blacks and now Hmong; the history of which, is explained by Sue to her unlikely saviour: they’re a race of people from Laos and surrounding countries, who fought with the U.S. in Vietnam and who were granted sanctuary in the messy aftermath; you learn something new every day, right? The writing here is precise and Sue is quite the ambassador for her people, even going so far as inspiring Walt’s motivation to carry him from there to here: her summation of the problems facing young Hmong? ‘Girls go to college and boys go to jail’. This yarn works, because its themes are so constant and enduring; yes, Walt’s an unreformed racist bigot, but they’re everywhere, if you look hard enough. Likewise, there have been, are now and will be many, many tribes and Sues… The unceasing pattern.
Next-up is Walt’s birthday and one of his boys presents him with a ‘big button’ phone and a grabber for, err, grabbing out-of-reach items, before he and his wife move on to the idea of Walt moving into a retirement complex: inevitably it doesn’t go well and they’re soon slung out on their ears. Once in the cocooned hush of their (Japanese) LandCruiser, son and daughter-in-law reassure each other that ‘he can’t be helped’, but it never occurs to them that Walt doesn’t want to be! It’s yet more estrangement from within a family that struggles to communicate & share; a notion reinforced when Walt reads – then dismisses as a ‘crock of shit’ – his horoscope for the year ahead, before accepting an invite to attend a Hmong BBQ.
Whilst there, a shaman offers to ‘read’ Walt and proceeds to deliver a blistering character assessment: yet another example of how the ground under his feet is shifting. Walt knows this, too, as in a bathroom mirror, he says to himself: ‘I have more in-common with these Gooks, than I do in my own, spoilt-rotten family’. This is an important step-change for him, as he’s beginning to let fall-away, prejudices long held. He takes it further, when he finds Thao and gently teases him, in his own, blunt way, over the boy’s shyness towards a girl. As I said, Walt is human, just selective to whom he shows it.
Their slow-burning double-act takes a twist later-on, when Thao is coerced by his mother, to do odd-jobs for Walt, to make amends for the attempted car-theft. I would’ve liked to have seen this earlier, actually: closer to the event and before the BBQ but Schenk dumped it here, so he could front-load Act One with Walt’s antagonisms. So it is, that Walt becomes a reluctant Mr Miyagi, except there’s no picket fence here, that needs painting. Instead (and as if to reinforce the point that Walt’s house already looks good and that he doesn’t need help), Thao’s honour is served, when Walt sends him out to repair all the neighbouring homes in need of work… This builds-up further respect for Walt in the community and gives Thao a useful purpose that he appears to enjoy; so much so, that Walt suggests he take a job ‘in construction’ to pay for a college education. ‘And I think you should date Miss YumYum. Blow the carbon off your valves’. He even takes Thao over to barber Martin, for a crash-course in Personal Insults (Grade One). This is Walt being selective: as I watched this scene play-out, I tried to imagine how it might play, with his flippant Grandson in the hot-seat instead: I have Schenk’s writing to thank, for prompting such a thought in the first place…
Act Three. The Fall and the End of Innocence. When another altercation with the Honda Gang on the lawn turns sour, the stakes are raised. Sue’s assaulted. The gang shoot-up Thao’s house. They’ve already attacked him on his return from his new job ‘for making them look bad’, but that was just a foretaste of darker motivations. Walt’s already dying: we’ve heard his coughing get progressively louder with, latterly, added blood, so we know he’s got nothing to lose. When we see him planning for his own Unfortunate Event, it’s not with a sense of pity, however; rather this thought: ‘This is Dirty Harry. Who’s he going to take down with him?’
Final thoughts? This isn’t Walt’s movie: it’s Sue’s. After all, she’s the one that bridges the gulf between Walt and the Hmong; she represents a tolerant, educated future that inspires Walt to believe in something better. Oh, and the ‘Torino? Except for the end credit shot when we see it disappear into the distance, we never see it running, because it doesn’t need to; it’s possibly the only thing of beauty Walt ever owned. His late wife was the proud home-maker, with Walt consigned to the garage, so just as she had nice things… It also sits as a prize – a MacGuffin – to be fought over by the covetous and, in so doing, its mere existence propels the plot forward, whether it be with Thao and his cousins, or Walt’s sons, who, you just know, are eagerly anticipating getting their mitts on it in due-course; to sell, natch.
Problems? Walt is a caricature of a man, but he doesn’t discriminate, being an arsehole to everyone in the film. No-one gets off lightly. This heavy-handed layering of the character, with his constant racial slurs, is hard to take at times but, again, has to be there, to polarise both our opinions and those of his circle. If he were any softer, it wouldn’t work as well as it does. You have to go there, in order to get back here. Right? And, yes, if I’m honest, it takes a while to get going and never really amps-up the tempo, but this material needs a slow pace and leisurely editing to reflect both Walt’s pace of life and the Director’s style of film-making; you can’t have everything. Go with it though, and it seldom puts a foot wrong.
It’s no surprise, that Warner Bros. have stuck with Eastwood over the years, for he’s become something of an in-house, money-making auteur. Yes, he has the occasional misfire but when he hits, this is one Director that hits Big. If I sound uncertain about this one however, it’s not that I think of this Gran Torino as misfiring but, rather, ‘lumpy at idle’…
I think you’re an over-educated 27-year old virgin, who likes to hold the hands of superstitious old ladies and promise them everlasting life.