Cinema/TV, Film Notes

Film review – Gran Torino (2008)

My notes on Gran Torino (2008)

In the first moments of Gran Torino, retired auto worker Walt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood) stands ramrod-straight at his beloved wife’s funeral as his granddaughter (Dreama Walker) arrives with a shirt that hikes up over her belly piercing and pulls out her mobile phone in church. Walt raises a lip and growls in acid disapproval – in exactly the manner Eastwood’s Dirty Harry did back in the day when he sighted a crime that needed to be fought with his Magnum .44. The look recurs throughout a film, which – if Eastwood were to retire, at least as an actor – could stand as a valedictory summation of his iconic image the way The Shootist was for John Wayne. Walt isn’t a cop or a cowboy, but is Clint Eastwood – a carved-in-stone screen presence who trails associations of past roles as he goes through any new story. Walt maintains Korean War weapons in the basement with his medals, though it turns out that he’s more traumatised than hardened by the killing he did fifty years ago, but his present life focuses more on the showpiece’72 Gran Torino — and the impressive array of DIY tools — in his garage.

Walt is estranged from upwardly-mobile, flabby, self-centered children and grandchildren, contemptuous of the boyish priest (Christopher Carley) his wife charged with looking in on him, and seethes with racist bile at the take-over of his blue-collar neighbourhood by ‘gooks’ and ‘chinks’. He’s the sort who pulls a gun when a punk steps on his lawn or hassles him on the street — which plays as well to movie audiences as it does to the solid citizen neighbours who make him a kind of hero — even if he is given to grumbling disapproval at their funny foreign ways (decapitating a chicken during a barbeque) and looking at curmudgeonly Asian grannies as if they were armed gang-members. Thao (Bee Vang), the fatherless kid next door, is pressured by his cousin Spider (Doua Moua) to join a street gang and set the task of stealing Walt’s Gran Torino as an initiation. Walt, who has stood down gang-banger kids of various ethnicities, catches the boy in the act – but, in a hint that he might not be invulnerable – trips over before he can inflict punishment.

Later, Thao’s dominant sister Sue (Ahney Her) delivers the boy to Walt to work off the shame doing odd jobs. In his contact with Thao and Sue, and their extended family, the dyed-in-the-wool racist gradually comes to realise the Asians who have taken over his neighbourhood embody values closer to his idea of America than his own relatives who have fled to the suburbs. Though Walt maintains non-stop racial abuse and stereotyping (calling Sue ‘Dragon Lady’ and Thao’s potential girlfriend Yum Yum), he even learns – as does the audience – about his neighbours’ specific ethnicity (they’re Hmong, who left Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam after fighting on the Americans’ side in the war) and aspects of their culture and social problems (‘Hmong girls go to college and the boys go to jail’). There’s a certain amount of comedy shock value in Walt’s pithy put-downs, which even extend to an idiot white kid (Scott Eastwood) who tries to talk like a black gang member in a street corner face-off, but scenes in which Walt and an Italian barber (John Carroll Lynch) exchange slurs are at once funny and show the character’s limitations: he can’t see that Poles and Italians have assimilated in America to the point where race-specific insults aimed at them are defanged, but more recently-arrived or historically oppressed non-white ethnic groups are still in a marginal position and liable to bristle at equivalent name-calling.

The gang keep escalating the feud, not attacking Walt but Thao’s family, and the set-up seems to echo the old vigilante mode of Eastwood’s ‘70s films, and such stand-against-the-thugs films as Death Wish or Boardwalk. As in The Shootist, Walt is coughing blood and confronting a possibly terminal disease that might incline him to go out in a blaze of glory, applying his old killing skills to an assault on Spider’s hang-out, rather than into hospital or (as his sons suggest) a nice retirement community. This goes beyond even Unforgiven in showing how the protagonist has been warped by violence done in the past, and the climax involves a martyrdom which ties up a surprisingly complex set of sub-plots in a satisfying, not-quite-expected manner. The disposition of the Gran Torino – which Walt is never seen driving – becomes a crucial element in the wrap-up. As director, Eastwood turns in one of his more focused, Don Siegel-like films – after the sprawling Changeling, this is a well-balanced, unfussy, unshowy piece of work, as solidly put together as the cars America used to make.


2 thoughts on “Film review – Gran Torino (2008)

  1. Jay Clifton
    Really enjoyed your review, though it does sound like a film revisiting ground Eastwood has already travelled and done better in the past…was The Changeling actually any good? I like his more adventurous films like ‘Bird’ but I have a bit of a block on taking Angelina Jolie seriously.

    Robert Martin
    You really zeroed in on the pulse of this film. Eastwood deserves every bit of the praise he’s getting but significant credit should go to writers Nick Schenk (screenplay) and David Johannson (story), who seem to have come out of nowhere.

    Kim Newman
    I thought Changeling was admirable, but tried to be too many films without giving enough space to any of them – potentially, the best approach was the underdeveloped creepy horror of the child who calmly drives the woman he says is his mother mad, but you also got the serial killer drama, the Ellroyesque LA police corruption historical, the Snake Pit asylum melodrama and the woman-against-the-system (ie: gimme an Oscar) schtick seen in Norma Rae or Silkwood. Jolie just isn’t fragile enough to play a proper victim, and does anyone in the audience think her balding, homely co-worker has a real chance with her at the end? I think GT might stand as a deconstruction of Eastwood’s Dirty Harry in the way Unforgiven undoes his western gunfighter roles – and I found the ending more affecting than the expected shoot-out, as (spoiler) the hero is so warped by his earlier exposure to violence that he can’t bear to kill anyone but himself.

    Kim Newman
    I understand it wasn’t written specifically for him – though I can’t think of any current star in his age range who could play it. Then again, The Shootist was a Glendon Swarthout novel before it became a script that would only work with John Wayne. In Empire, Angie Errigo writes about the connections between The Shootist – directed, of course, by Eastwood’s mentor Don Siegel – and Gran Torino; I assume Schenk and Johanssen deliberately adapted some of the earlier book/film’s ideas, though Clint’s Walt goes through with the plan that Wayne’s Books is too much a shootist to carry out.

    Maitland McDonagh
    I think GT works stunningly as a deconstruction of the Dirty Harry persona and I truly believe that had anyone other than Eastwood starred it would have come off like some bizarre neo-Death Wish. I don’t think that even, say, Gene Hackman — who’s roughly Eastwood’s contemporary — could have inbued the role with the depth that makes it heartbreaking rather than vaguely repellent.
    I also agree with you about Jolie in Changeling, except that I don’t want to lay all the blame at her door: I think she’s miscast, both because she lacks a certain vulnerability and because she’s utterly physically unconvincing for the period. There isn’t one second in the film (except perhaps when she’s being hosed down naked) that I buy her as a woman of that time: Her walk is wrong, her mannerisms are wrong… even her lipstick is wrong. Not because that shade of red wasn’t popular, but because at that time pillowy lips like Jolie’s were considered ugly and anyone who had them would have toned them down
    13 y
    Anne Billson
    Ah, but that red was really nice, though, wasn’t it? And you’re right about pillowy lips, Maitland – nobody liked big lips before… who was the first? Beatrice Dalle? Now, of course, it’s all trout-pout a-go-go.

    Anne Billson
    Just saw this – SORT OF A SPOILER. it’s the best sort of ending, caught me right off guard, but in retrospect everything points to it.

    Maitland McDonagh
    I have a feeling big lips (and a host of other things) came into their own in the 1970s, as part of a general cultural embrace of the ethnic, the exotic and non-standard beauty.
    I mean I look at men’s bodies in ’70s movies and it boggles my mind: You could be a pallid, narrow-chested weed boy and be considered smoking hot.
    Alll of which makes me think about who could be a porn star (a certain gutter-level indicator of culturally determined attractiveness) in the ’70s and couldn’t get through the door today. Georgina Spelvin, anyone? Harry Reems? Think about it.
    And on that note, may I recommend the documentary “Anatomy of an Icon,” about Jack Wrangler?

    Kim Newman
    There was a 1920s vogue for ‘bee-stung lips’, but that meant painting a weird fake set of lips over thin real ones.
    It’s odd how films work hard over period details but never think about things like fashions in faces and body-shape – in the Amityville Horror remake, Ryan Reynolds takes his shirt off and shows the sort of gym-toned supehero muscle definition no regular working man in the mid-70s would have. More obviously, there are the inoculation scars worn by the prehistoric cavepeople in Hammer’s dinosaur movies.

    Anne Billson
    I was shocked in all the wrong ways by Matt Damon’s torso in supposedly 1950s-set Talented Mr Ripley. And by Branagh’s torso in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein… Funny how they can CGI-in ripped torsos in 300 and Beowulf, but it never occurs to anyone to do the reverse. I love the rounded thighs of the dancers in 1930s musicals. One of the many admirable things about Mad Men is that Matt Weiner apparently refuses to hire actors with body types (or boob jobs) that wouldn’t pass for early 1960s.

    Posted by kimnewman | February 17, 2022, 9:23 am
  2. Hammer’s cave-people either had some minimalist tribal scarification ideas, were subject to periodic health visits from extra terrestrials with an interest in improving their chances, or had made asymmetric progress in medicine, ahead of the expected trend and in line with their developments in hairstyles, make-up and bikinis.

    Posted by wmsagittarius | February 18, 2022, 3:24 am

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