“Gran Torino” is a movie Clint Eastwood likely willed into existence on the backs of “Million Dollar Baby,” “Mystic River” and a number of exceptional films The Fog City Master has crafted over nearly four decades of filmmaking. It is a story of meaty characters, weighty themes and big action, and it is quintessentially an American movie.
But as it focuses on its great concerns, it ignores its wooden acting, forced dialogue and cliched, manipulative writing. “Gran Torino” is the first draft of a better movie. From minute one, you feel the film’s screenwriter ineptly pulling the strings from above, yanking his crudely drawn characters into collision.
Eastwood plays Walt Kowalski, an old-timer retired from decades in a local Detroit Ford factory where he made the sole object of his pride, a ’72 Gran Torino he keeps in pristine condition, covered in a white sheet in his garage. Kowalski is essentially your grandfather. He fought in Korea, but it could have been any of those foreign fronts: France, Germany, Guadalcanal. He flew there, watched some of his friends die, killed people he didn’t know and returned with the scars to show it, acutely aware of what it takes to keep the United States atop the international pecking order.
Now, still mobile in his 80s, he’s a professional son of a bitch. All of that former glory and sacrifice seems lost. While he keeps his two-story spotlessly maintained, poor Koreans have moved in around him, and the neighborhood has decayed. His two doughy sons have moved away, and one works in “sales,” a profession Kowalski doesn’t respect. He chooses to isolate himself and mutter epithets at his foreign neighbors. One particular joke he tells a few American Legion buddies is as follows: “A Mexican, a Jew and a colored guy go into a bar. The bartender looks up and says, ‘Get the fuck out of here.’”
End joke. Simple as that.
Then Korean gangsters with the unfortunate audacity to stand on his front lawn threaten several of his neighbors. After pulling a rifle on the gangsters to scare them away, the Hmong family feels indebted to him, showering him with unwanted gifts until he agrees to join them at a barbecue. It’s there Walt reaches his turning point — to reach out to and interact with people he doesn’t understand or continue his dyspeptic solitude.
Eastwood’s performance is nearly perfect and entertaining even if, at times, it feels superficial or cliched. He’s not above looking directly into the camera and grunting at the audience like an aging, arthritic tiger when he sees the grandmother next door sitting on her front porch. Eastwood does what he does best in his present age (aside from directing). He plays the grizzled asshole. Kowalkski is “Million Dollar Baby’s” Frankie Dunn tweaked up a few notches and dipped in battery acid. The character is not written or directed with subtlety. Kowalksi is a blunt force and a well-oiled machine. He sees something broken, he fixes it. He sees someone do something wrong, he corrects them — with force if necessary. And this is all wonderfully within Eastwood’s wheelhouse. This is the type of character Eastwood has always played. The reluctant warrior. These are the people he understands and probably loves and admires. It’s also why the performance is the movie and everything else falls short.
Eastwood cast many Koreans who haven’t acted before, and it shows. He excuses, ignores or simply doesn’t notice (which I can’t believe) wooden lines of dialog and cartoonish facial reactions. Rather than interpret dialog in the screenplay, Ahney Her and Bee Vang — who play two teenagers who befriend Walt — merely speak the words written on the page, and when it’s difficult for them, it sounds like someone learning to tap dance for the first time. It’s arhythmic and constipated and could use a more natural actor’s ease. It’s not just the Hmongs either. Christopher Carley gives a truly awkward performance as Father Janovich who claims Walt’s deceased wife asked him to look over Walt no matter how much he resists.
Eastwood, however great a director, has been guilty of this sort of misdirected attention before. He has a tendency to fill his films with compelling, beautifully rounded characters and banally flat ones. In “Million Dollar Baby,” one of his masterpieces, the family of Maggie Fitzgerald (played by Hillary Swank) was dangerously superficial. They were carciatures, almost purely nasty. Because the film occupied the space between Frankie and Maggie, shallow characters didn’t hurt the movie. In fact, at times, Eastwood deftly used their nastiness in his favor, squeezing moments of humor out of their pathetic, well-deserved destitution. But “Gran Torino’s” script has fewer characters, including fewer great ones, leaving less room to hide flaws.
It also suffers from being an “issue film.” Ian McEwan, perhaps this era’s finest author, once said he never starts a book with an issue in mind. He begins with an image or a character and investigates what that character does, what his interests are, what his or her story is. To start with an “issue” would almost certainly lead to preposterous storytelling or utter pretentiousness. In “Gran Torino’s” case, it’s unnatural storytelling. The screenwriter, Nick Schenk, wrote a big movie covering everything from Korean culture to immigration, and he grants Walt big, flashy actions to illustrate his thoughts. Early in the film, Vang’s character, Thao, tries to steal Walt’s Gran Torino — part of his initiation into the local Hmong gang. When Walt catches the boy, he ultimately tries to help him by forcing him into hard labor. He gets him a local construction job and allows him to borrow tools. In essence, he becomes a surrogate father.
As the gang continues its atttempts to initiate Thao, Walt realizes he’s going to have to confront them, and it’s in his final actions “Gran Torino” feels less like real life and more like a screenwriter’s hyper-realized interpretation of it. “Gran Torino” ends on a note of heroic bombast — one that left me thinking, “Would Walt do that in real life? Would he really go that distance for Thao, for the Hmongs? Is that even necessary?”
Walt represents this nation’s aging guard, and in the end, “Gran Torino” figuratively and hopefully passes the torch to a new generation of immigrants searching for the American Dream. It is a notable movie because it does a good job covering the resistance and growing pains created by that sort of progress, that change. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve seen a movie so far that understood and accepted both of those without castigating someone. But while it has a sure handle on the larger picture, the small stuff spills out, rendering what could have been a great movie, imperfect and occasionally annoying.
But regardless of its execution, it may turn out to be an important picture after all, and I wouldn’t protest that.