Gran Torino (2009)

Clint Eastwood's face has a geological quality about it -- and not just because he's been around for ages and ages. His face is aging and weathering, and like a weathered piece of wood, or a rocky mesa, it's been through periods of craggy roughness, and now the hard creases seem to be flattening out, getting smoother and tighter like a mummy's face, the perpetually squinting eyes getting even narrower and squintier. It's a face with a visible history, in other words, and that's a good thing.

Eastwood's history as an actor -- the characters and types he's played -- are part of the history of Walt Kowalski, the man at the center of
Gran Torino. There's a little Dirty Harry, and Man with No Name, and Bill Munny, and Frankie Dunn in Walt Kowalski. Also, surprisingly, a little Archie Bunker.

Gran Torino begins, Walt is burying his beloved wife. He glares and growls at the people attending her funeral, including his own sons and their families. He's a cantankerous misanthrope who seems content to spend the rest of his life on his front porch, drinking Pabst and talking to his dog Daisy. The world, however, is not content to leave Walt be. There's the persistent young priest, Father Janovich (Christopher Carley), who promised Walt's wife that he'd get him to confession. There are the neighbors, a Hmong immigrant family, that Walt watches with suspicion and ire while growling racist epithets under his breath. Walt's a retired auto worker, and his home is tidy and well-kept, and in his garage is a perfectly preserved 1972 Ford Gran Torino. But he lives in a rundown, working class Detroit neighborhood, surrounded by people he views as foreigners and stereotypes.

The family next door intrudes on his property, and they're met with a shotgun. The son, Thao (Bee Vang), is harassed by Hmong gangbangers -- they think he's a sissy. Walt thinks so too, but his shotgun intervention turns him into a local hero among his Hmong neighbors. The boy's mouthy, domineering sister Sue (Ahney Her) sends him over to Walt's house to repay the debt, which is the start of an unlikely relationship, as Walt mentors the boy and attempts to "man him up." This is done with a great deal of racist insult, which, it turns out, counts as affectionate banter for Walt.

Walt is a haunted figure, and Eastwood brings his own ghosts to the role, which enriches it immensely. As a director directing himself, Eastwood is perfectly willing to take his iconic roles and reexamine them, turn them around and look at them from all sides. Eastwood's history of playing the all-American archetype -- the gun-toting man's man doing what's gotta be done -- adds depth to Kowalski, who is, quite clearly, a guy who buys into the old notion of what it means to be American, and a man, and also what it means to be an outsider. And so,
Gran Torino is partly a cross-cultural comedy about teaching an old dog new tricks, and teaching a young dog some old tricks. It's partly a drama about conflicting values, about the ways that the notion of masculinity as gun-toting manliness are reinterpreted from one generation to the next. Did Dirty Harry and the avenging gunslinger mythology of the last century morph into 21st century gang culture? Does the post-Vietnam view of America's violent interventionism inform Walt's war hero regrets?

Gran Torino is also a tragedy, and a melancholy elegy. From the cracked sidewalks to the rundown houses of Walt's decaying neighborhood, and his dying city, to the mournful symbolism of that cherry Gran Torino in his garage, that muscle car specimen of America's former automotive glory, Walt and his worldly possessions have the perfectly preserved quality of museum exhibits, anthropological evidence of a bygone era.

Gran Torino, written by newcomer Nick Schenk, is occasionally clunky in its plotting and transitions from comedy to drama to tragedy, but it also frequently surprises, and repeatedly thwarts expectations. It's a movie with a straightforward plot, but with a lot on its mind -- and that pretty much sums up the modus operandi of Eastwood as a filmmaker (and he's a really terrific filmmaker). Gran Torino also fits perfectly into this time of transition and upheaval in America, where notions of who we are and what we stand for as a people -- where what it means to be American -- are in flux. How interesting, and how like the contrary, complex Eastwood, that this apparent revenge drama, this little picture, turns out to be a prescient view of the really big picture, of the transition from an America-as-gangbanger politics built on a simplistic interpretation of the gunslinger model (which was never really that simple), to a politics built on (one hopes) a more thoughtful model that acknowledges the complexity of right and wrong, good and evil, and the difference between heroism and vengeance.