There are several things counting quite heavily against GRAN TORINO. The first is that Clint Eastwood is old, and a lot of Hollywood old boys refuse to give up the image they used to have and just look silly. The second is that Clint Eastwood isn’t doing this, and Hollywood loves it when they do (even if I think elderly prima donnas are arseholes). Thirdly, it could easily be seen as an Oscar begging bowl trying to get Eastwood a final gong before he departs for the big film studio in the sky. Finally there is an issue more than adequately railed against by my esteemed colleague Ray: the marketing pretends it’s a guns-blazing bonanza of violence (like the distributors probably wanted).
Nonetheless, I maintain that GRAN TORINO is a great film. It uses several of these preconceptions to twist the assumptions of the audience on their head in a valiant effort to reach out to the Eastwood audience with a new message. Essentially what the movie is doing is telling the story of the changing shape of America from the perspective of a man very clearly lodged in its past – in this sense it isn’t too dissimilar to NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, although in many others it is very very different. Eastwood plays Walt Kowalski, a bastion of the old world and a cranky old Vietnam veteran proudly hanging onto his house in a neighbourhood that has steadily been taken over by Asian families. He vigourously maintains his independence from them until events take a dramatic turn, and he is drawn into the immigrant life with all of the unexpected extremes of solidarity, kindness and violence that comes with it.
As a commentary on American society it is a little preachy. I was left with a sneaking suspicion that Eastwood is atoning for the glorification of violence he was occasionally lambasted – but at least as frequently appreciated – for. This aggressive, gun-toting attitude is completely dismantled and analysed in a gradual and subtle way throughout the film. The aggression of Walt Kowalski is shown in a very different light to that of contemporary gangs, who use violence is a way that shows complete absence of morals. Kowalski’s approach is also shown as a virtue among the many other ‘decent folks’ who just lack the guts to stand up against those who use violence for the wrong reasons. But ultimately the conclusion is that violence can never really solve anything. A fine apology, or at least caveat, to a lengthy career built on gun-fuelled mayhem.
Even if this moral stands out clearly, a little too clearly, the film manages to avoid being too much of a diatribe. The reason for this is simple, Eastwood is a brilliant cranky old man. He develops his old characters into what they could easily have become in a contemporary context. Kowalski is racist, rude and bullish but retains a forthright moralistic view of the world that makes it difficult to hate him for it. The preaching of non-violence built into the narrative becomes palatable because it is not presented as ‘the right thing to do’ but the only solution for a man who is constantly itching to solve things with his gun. Kowalski’s palpable frustration at being unable to resort to the solution that has always served him so well is a superb way of circumventing the problems associated with such a volte face on the usual Eastwood persona.
So I’d suggest that all of the criticisms about poor marketing and moralising to pander to the Academy and give the film a chance. Eastwood is genuinely great in it, and it is a rare virtue in Hollywood today that an actor will not just age gracefully, admitting his/her own decline, but use all of their experience to construct something so intelligent and interesting. This would be a fitting conclusion to a long and illustrious career.
This article was first posted on February 4, 2009