The success or failure of “Gran Torino” is completely a referendum on Clint Eastwood.
It isn’t just that Eastwood directs and produces “Gran Torino.” It isn’t that he co-wrote the score and even “sings” the title song that plays over the closing credits. It isn’t that “Gran Torino” marks the latest in a growing string of career-encapsulating performances from the grizzled legend. It isn’t even that all of the supporting roles have been cast with variably unfamiliar and inexperienced actors, making Eastwood’s centrality overwhelming at times.
No, “Gran Torino” is all about how much you’re willing to let Clint Eastwood get away with because he’s Clint Eastwood.
In my case, I ended up surprised by how much I was willing to give Eastwood the benefit of the doubt and how many times I shook my head and said, “Under no other circumstances would this possibly work…”
I don’t know if anybody will go along with me on this, but I like to think of “Gran Torino” as “The Visitor” meets “Death Wish,” in which Richard Jenkins’ character, having had his life changed by the African squatters in his ridiculously valuable New York City apartment, decides at the end of the movie to purchase a rifle and take out several low-level immigration officials, all with the music of Fela Kuti playing in the background.
Like Tom McCarthy’s “The Visitor,” “Gran Torino” is a character study of a weary man whose lined face reflects years of loneliness and disappointment. Perhaps just days away from fading into the background entirely, the main character is resurrected by a chance meeting with several Magical Ethnic Others, who teach him their Mysterious Ethnic Ways and give him renewed purpose. Yeah, it’s cultural imperialism, but in 2008, it’s also a commentary on immigration in 21st Century America, which makes it all OK.
McCarthy’s film, a summer sleeper hit and a pleasing short-story of a movie, is actually far simpler and softer than Eastwood’s effort.
As the “Gran Torino” trailer showcased, Eastwood’s film is more of an Old Dirty Harry (or “ODH” when he performs with the Wu Tang Clan) story about a man who’s essentially been at war with himself since Korea. As a fresh-faced priest tells him, he’s more comfortable with death than with life, so he makes conflicts wherever he can. And he’s uncomfortable with people, which manifests itself in a veneer of rather outrageous racism.
Here’s where the most important part of Eastwood’s pull comes into play, because at least half of his dialogue in the movie contains at least one ethnic slur, often many in a row. The effect is similar to Jack Nicholson’s Oscar-winning misanthropic performance in “As Good As It Gets,” where any other actor delivering the same lines would instantly alienate the viewer. We let Nicholson and Eastwood’s characters get away with it for three reasons: We see instantly their bigotry is a defense mechanism. We know that Hollywood convention requires they Learn a Valuable Lesson in the end (which rarely happens with the old bigots we might encounter in our own lives). And finally we have so much darned good-will for Nicholson and Eastwood that we pretty much let them do what they want.
With Eastwood in “Gran Torino,” our free pass has to extend an extra level. Eastwood’s character, a retired autoworker whose neighborhood has become overrun with all manner of minorities, is probably racist because of all of the stereotypes he encounters in his day-to-day life. The way Eastwood the Director treats the film’s Mexican and African-American hoodlums is borderline offensive and certainly couched in caricature, while his Hmong neighbors are fetishized and exoticized in many of the ways the director treated the Japanese in “Letters From Iwo Jima.”
But it’s all OK. Well, it’s not completely OK. In fact, it takes a while to get used to and to get into the flow, but it becomes OK.
Part of the pass comes because we’re assuming in certain ways that Eastwood’s directorial eye is also the eye of his main character, but also because Eastwood is winking at us. Yes, he’s hopelessly out-of-date, but that’s part of the point.
“Gran Torino” isn’t a laugh-out-loud comedy, but it knows that it’s a movie about a bad-ass old man making friends with his wacky Asian neighbors. It isn’t a sitcom, but do you think Eastwood isn’t aware that his constant growling and snarling is a source for chuckles? Of course he is. And of course Eastwood knows that when he whips out a rifle and barks out “Get off my lawn,” audiences are going to be amused. Eastwood has uttered enough kiss-off one-liners in his career to know how they play.
[I can’t say for sure whether the title song is meant to be taken seriously. It’s half-sung, half-spoken word and even if you were utterly caught up in the movie’s climax — and I was — it’s hard not to crack up. And yet the Hollywood Foreign Press gave it a Golden Globe nomination, so somebody’s taking it seriously.]
As director, Eastwood is as methodical as ever. He steps on the throttle at the end, probably (definitely?) overplaying his emotional hand, but for most of the film the only clunky touches come from his score, which somehow breaks into a military march whenever his character’s Korean service is mentioned. Coming off of the stiflingly over-produced and mannered “Changeling,” “Gran Torino” is stripped bare visuallyn. Eastwood shot the movie fast and low-key and the result is charmingly low-frills.
And as an actor, the Eastwood persona just continues to age gracefully. You spend half the movie going, “My God, Clint is so freakin’ old” and half the movie going “Damn Clint is freakin’ spry.” And I think both reactions are driven by Eastwood’s performance, which is basically on an island, since the supporting performances are almost uniformly amateurish.
The question of how Nick Schenk’s screenplay would work in different hands is moot. It wouldn’t work at all, but it doesn’t need to. Similarly the question of whether people embracing “Gran Torino” would embrace it with any other director or any other leading man is irrelevant.
“Gran Torino” is Clint.