This is a ‘heavy’ film – heavy with symbolism and heavy with portent. It is also attracting large audiences and plenty of critical attention, mostly favourable. I’m still ambivalent about the film and likely to remain so. The heaviest thing about the film is Clint Eastwood’s persona and his legacy as a Hollywood icon. There is little else here to support the weight of Eastwood – a first-time scriptwriter, a cast without other stars and including what appear to be non-professional actors, muted cinematography etc. The ‘Gran Torino’ is a 1972 Ford, partly built by Kowalski..
This is a ‘heavy’ film – heavy with symbolism and heavy with portent. It is also attracting large audiences and plenty of critical attention, mostly favourable. I’m still ambivalent about the film and likely to remain so.
The heaviest thing about the film is Clint Eastwood’s persona and his legacy as a Hollywood icon. There is little else here to support the weight of Eastwood – a first-time scriptwriter, a cast without other stars and including what appear to be non-professional actors, muted cinematography etc. Eastwood bestrides the film much as he does in High Plains Drifter or Pale Rider as a vengeful and terrible angel, except this time he’s ‘Walt Kowalski’, a 78 year old ex-Ford worker, recently widowed and living in a suburb affected by what Americans used to call ‘white flight’. Walt’s neighbours are now Hmong, the mountain people of South East Asia, many of whom fought with the Americans during the Vietnam War and who subsequently migrated to the US.
The ‘Gran Torino’ is a 1972 Ford, partly built by Kowalski, that becomes the catalyst for a relationship that develops between Walt and the teenage Thao, the boy next door. Gradually, the old man, a Korean War veteran seemingly incapable of seeing any East Asian person as anything other than a ‘gook’ or a ‘slope’, becomes something of a friend and mentor to the boy. Of course, this being an Eastwood film heavy with generic references, Walt’s main concerns are to ‘beef up’ the boy’s masculinity and help him fight back against a Hmong gang who want to take him in.
There is also a second narrative strand in which Walt can’t communicate with his own sons and their families and in which he is pestered by the young priest who promised Walt’s dying wife that he would cajole her husband into confession. I don’t think I need to spell out the plot any further.
Let’s take the positives first. The film is always entertaining and it’s well-made. In one sense it’s great to see a veteran of 1970s cinema still making genre movies. Also, Eastwood follows up Letters from Iwo Jima, which offered representations of Japanese soldiers greatly appreciated in Japan, with images of the Hmong community in Michigan. Again this appears to have pleased Hmong who were seeking visibility in a more even-handed manner (so Hmong culture is explained in the film and the gang/thug representations are matched by views of ‘ordinary’ family life). Also we see some sympathy for blue-collar American culture, now almost a rarity in Hollywood. Walt drinks in the Veteran’s watering hole, goes to a traditional barber, jokes with the guys on the construction site etc.
But I’m not sure that this is enough. Eastwood has often been a kind of counter-culture hero, especially outside the US where the ‘man with no name’ was popular in Africa and the Caribbean in the 1960s and 1970s even when ‘Dirty Harry’ was shooting African-Americans on the street (was the car in Dirty Harry a Gran Torino model?). I was once strangely seduced by aspects of this persona, but it all stopped when Eastwood appeared in Heartbreak Ridge (1986). That film portrayed the American invasion of Grenada – a classic instance of American imperial power used on the basis of Reaganite lies about the Caribbean. I couldn’t stand to watch the film, but Eastwood’s character in it sounds like a variant of Walt Kowalski. I’m sorry, but Eastwood with a big gun just looks like a right-wing vigilante to me and the popularity of the image will always be disturbing.
I had to be dragged to see Gran Torino and I have to agree with the person who dragged me there that the film is indeed interesting in what it says about Hollywood today – about stars and the use of genre. Eastwood has produced a film that will make $200 million worldwide based on his own star image, an interesting social observation about a community rarely seen on screen, and a simple story. The film is essentially a male melodrama, a narrative about a man who has lived a life according to a code, but has felt anger about what he had to do in Korea. The repression of that anger produces the emotional coldness that destroys his family life and the ‘release’ of the repressed emotion is what fuels the film’s narrative drive. Here perhaps is where the real critical point about the film can be made. The script, I think, is too sketchy and there is a hole – how did Eastwood get on with his wife? How did she relate to the neighbours?
I’m all in favour of well-written genre films. Formulas and conventions are useful if you know how to use them economically and inflect them for interesting results. Stars and directorial vision can also work effectively in genre cinema as Eastwood has proved in the past. But Eastwood doesn’t seem to know how to handle family melodrama. He is uncomfortable with the ‘excess’ of melodrama and doesn’t seem to cope with the range of emotions the scenario demands. There are a couple of scenes that are comically clunky. Walt doesn’t speak, he growls and breathes heavily. In the opening scene at his wife’s funeral, his disgust makes him almost cartoonish. Eastwood famously said little in his first screen persona as the spaghetti western hero. Here he says, or growls, too much. When you mix melodrama with elements of the youth picture (gangs) and the vigilante thriller, it must be difficult to determine how to fix the films style. It didn’t always work for me in this particular mix. But it clearly has for mainstream audiences.
I think I would have liked a narrative mainly about the Hmong featuring the two leads, Bee Vang and Ahney Her. They have been criticised for not ‘acting’ as characters in Hollywood films normally do, but I found them convincing and intriguing. Gran Torino seems to me to be a project with great possibilities for which Eastwood should have sought more collaborators – a script re-write and another actor in the lead perhaps.
Roy Stafford is a film lecturer and writer working on film education with cinemas in the North of England. Roy was also the editor of In the Picture magazine from 1990 to 2008.