Clint Eastwood's Gran Torino: An Exercise in Self-Pity?
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Cinema-goers haven't been treated to Clint Eastwood's dulcet singing voice since he warbled " I Talk to the Trees" in Paint Your Wagon. Mr. Eastwood's latest film Gran Torino remedies that lack and offers up a swan song quite unlike any other.
Aside from the somewhat dubious pleasure of Eastwood's tuneful noodlings, Gran Torino is not a very good film. The acting lurches wildly from downright horrible to the merely confusing. The story makes no sense, and the underlying moral quandary is little more than a cartoon. The fact that it's been well reviewed makes me scratch my head a bit, but can probably be chalked up to the fact that everyone loves Clint Eastwood.
A long way from 1972
Despite its flaws, Gran Torino is interesting, mostly because of its timing. Given that the economic chaos in the U.S. barrels along, and the heart has fallen out of the automotive sector, the title character's role becomes increasingly poignant. And by title character I mean the car, not the Clint, although it is very easy to confuse the two. A man is his car, after all. In this, the 1972 Gran Torino is more than a mere symbol, it is relic of a bygone era for both men and machines. A lean, mean muscle car of the first order turns many a man weak-kneed, as does old Clint Eastwood himself. The man is a living, breathing relic, still straight and hard, despite his 78 years on the planet. But in this modern age, both man and car are dinosaurs, passing on, leaving only big footprints and hulking skeletons behind.
Clint plays Walt Kowalski, a red-blooded American of the old-school tradition, who has just lost his wife, Dorothy. The opening scene, which takes place at her funeral, lays the family dynamics. While Walt's two pudgy bovine sons and their whinging, disrespectful broods patronize the old man and place dibs on his stuff, Walt growls and scowls at the world. Even the limp reproaches of the local priest have little effect on Walt's dyspepsia.
The old coot appears content to end his days drinking beer on the porch with his dog Daisy, complaining about the decline and fall of the neighbourhood. After working more than 50 years at the Ford plant, raising a family, and giving his life's blood to his nation that sold everything off to the Chinese, Walt has little love for the current culture. His sons repaid his efforts by turning into shallow, avaricious twits.
One son even sells foreign cars for a living -- the ultimate rebuke to the old man.
White folks have largely moved out of his Detroit neighbourhood, leaving it to the influx of Asian immigrants, who seem to lack even the most passing affinity for hammer and nails. The place is falling apart, with the exception of Walt's tiny perfect patch of lawn, presided over by garden gnomes. There is little left to live for, except the bitter pleasures of bile and beer. But as Walt sits and watches, growling every possible racial epithet under his breath, life intrudes in the form of his next door neighbours, a Hmong family with troubles of their own.
When Thao, the family's young son, falls under the predation of a local gang, it is up to Walt to rescue him, and show him the means of becoming a man. This involves stuff like tools, cars and working construction. Thao is obviously in need of an injection of testosterone, since he does everything his older sister Sue tells him to do. So too, the female-led Hmong household is in need of some elemental manliness, which Walt, gradually, grudgingly supplies. There are a few amusing set-pieces here, such as Walt introducing Thao to the correct way to speak to other manly type men; bitching about mechanics and women is always a sure bet.