Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Gran Torino (2008)

After the white elephantitis of Changeling, Clint Eastwood re-affirms his place at the forefront of American cinema with the laid back Gran Torino. A microscopically small scale drama about how a grizzled Korean war vet spends his days after his wife kicks off, it's nigh unclassifiable. At once a comic treatise on aging akin to his own Space Cowboys, as well as a meditation on the tolls of violence with shades of Unforgiven, it's a concise and heartbreaking précis of his thematic obsessions over the past decade, and all filmed in rich autumnal tones by Tom Stern, a long time Eastwoodian who got one of his first gigs as a gaffer on Honkytonk Man (1982).

The film opens at his wife's funeral, and Walt Kowalski's rage at the modern age. His nephew arrives in a oversize Detroit Lions jersey (0-15 and counting!), while his granddaughter sashays in with a bare midriff, texting her friends throughout the ceremony. Here the growls start, and the predominantly comic first half of the film. Clint has always had a nimble comic personality (see: Bronco Billy), but here his charm is teased out slowly by his teenage Hmong neighbors Sue and Thao, who chip away at the encrustations of his stubborn old age. There are a number of beautifully modulated scenes between the three of them, with Sue (played smartly by newcomer Ahney Her) offering Walt a number of tart and supremely confident responses to his kneejerk racism. She knows his vocabulary is a relic of his age, and lets it slide off her back, charmed by his otherwise amusing cantankerousness.

This rich, embattled relationship is contrasted to Walt's non-existent connection with his children, who have chosen not to see beyond his exterior rage and write him off as nothing more than a burden. These pudgy middle-class strivers are quick to motor him off to an old folks home. It's hard to blame them at first, though, with Walt's asshole act leaving little room for engagement - he even admits to his priest that he never knew how to talk to them. Everyone has their reasons, even bourgeois pigs.

Then the movie, with the slowness of a lap dissolve, shifts into vigilante mode, as Kowalski is reluctantly drawn into a conflict with the local gang, who have unsuccessfully tried to recruit Thao to join them. The uses of violence and the value of vengeance are given a deeper consideration here than even in his Mystic River, which took that theme as its main subject. It handles it obliquely, even stoking visions of Dirty Harry before gently pulling the rug out from underneath itself, and our aged Harry is in danger of breaking his hip.

See also: Tativille on Gran Torino


My top ten list is up on Indiewire (as is Matt's), but I'll have a more complete list posted up here soon, with both released and unreleased films, and plenty of uninformed babbling. Stay tuned!

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