How does one approach a film whose ambitions so ostensibly outmatch its transparent habitat? Clint Eastwood should be credited for numerous reasons, not the least of which is that he, unlike Paul Haggis and many other overtly earnest filmmakers—some of whom seem hellbent on carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders—employs ample humor to coax and comfort his audience. The first half of Gran Torino recognizes the inherent comicality of the situation—an old Korean War veteran named Walt Kowalski (Eastwood) growls with dissatisfaction as he witnesses his old, depressingly deracinated Detroit neighborhood become transformed by immigration. Eastwood is tackling considerable issues, and his newest picture is his most thematically consistent film since his 1992 western masterpiece, Unforgiven. The trappings of the characters and the story through which they change suggest smallness, and the film is almost tinny in its exterior visualizations—yet seemingly purposefully so. Eastwood has given his viewer a portrait of the forgotten America in 2008, and it is a grimy, gritty and scabrous place. De-industrialization has hammered the mid-west and “rust-belt” to the point of exhaustion. Eastwood's Kowalski worked at a Ford plant for decades; now one of his two man-child sons sells Japanese cars. Kowalski is witnessing the death of his America—and the old ways in which his traditional outlook has been marinated. It is an ugly sight.
Death comes literally as well. Kowalski's life is immediately put through a self-microcosmic prism after his beloved, devoutly Catholic wife perishes. Eastwood's handling of unsympathetic characters—and perhaps particularly family members—in films like Million Dollar Baby and Changeling has been met with great derision by a vocal constituency. Gran Torino does not change the pattern; the family members are all “spoiled,” as Kowalski tells himself once in a mirror—and they are stereotypically so. A teenage granddaughter is especially out of a Disney comedy wherein such a character would usually learn an invaluable lesson. Here, however, she remains spoiled from beginning to end. She covets Kowalski's most prized possession, the very inanimate symbol of past American glory in the realm of manufacturing and creation in general—his 1972 Gran Torino, beautifully preserved by Kowalski in fine mint condition.
Kowalski is nothing less than the latest summation of Eastwood as an artist, both before and behind the camera. A knowledgeable Eastwood fan or merely observer cannot not interpret the character as Dirty Harry, v. 5.0 (or however many variations on the iconic character Eastwood has tackled since leaving the Dirty Harry series behind twenty years ago). Unforgiven was a manifestly revisionist picture, but so too was The Outlaw Josey Wales. Revisionist westerns, or simply more realistic and gray-area-oriented westerns had become the norm, not the exception, in the 1970s—whether they were created by Eastwood or Robert Altman, Arthur Penn or William A. Fraker. They, like Sam Peckinpah (whose films were marked with a specific import on the passing of this era) applauded and denounced the era they were examining—and arguably more importantly the Hollywood films that had visited the time period in the past. Eastwood's Gran Torino, then, works not merely as a western transmuted to the contemporary—but as a contemporary piece of revisionism. Not only that, but Eastwood is fashioning a mournful eulogy for the very machismo for which (in part) he became so globally famous, subtly reveling in it once more while admitting that it is comparatively antediluvian.
There is a pivotal moment in Gran Torino. Kowalski is enjoying himself for the first time in a great while with the Hmong neighbors he initially found exotically alien in their customs and ways. A girl belonging to the Hmong clan tells Kowalski that he is simply so American. When prodded about what that means, however, she simply shrugs. It is in the murkily bleary abstract that Eastwood finds the central base around which to frame the characterization. What is an American? And why is it that in his home country he finds himself, as a white man, as a Polish-American—theoretically genealogically belonging to a bygone wave of immigrants—to see his ranks perceptibly diminish? For Kowalski, it is he who is quickly becoming the minority.
Kowalski, like Eastwood's William Munny in Unforgiven, is haunted by the past—and most crushingly by the violently deadly actions from the Korean War that have left a lastingly concomitant mark on his sad life. His boyishly fledgling priest (Christopher Carley) promised Kowalski's wife that he would hear his confession. Kowalski critiques Father Janovich's trite platitudes (“...death is bittersweet... bitter in its pain... sweet in its salvation...”), telling the twenty-seven-year old that he knows nothing about life and death. As Munny told the Schofield Kid, “It's a hell of a thing, killin' a man.” Eastwood is at his best when he follows the through-line that has most emphatically informed his art. Josey Wales was a man born out of violence, out of war, not entirely unlike Kowalski—and the stains on his soul were crimson. Perhaps Mystic River's most poetically poignant scene is Sean Penn's retired thug vowing to his dead, viciously obliterated daughter that he, not the police, will find her murderer—and kill him. Eastwood is in his element when he surveys the moral compromises that dot the trail to damnation like so many stepping stones. It is why the final shot of Million Dollar Baby feels like the most honest part of that film: Eastwood's character believed he was doomed to hell for his decisive action on behalf of the woman to whom he allowed himself to become close. Gran Torino has a wonderful little scene in which Kowalski simply shakes a Hmong youth's hand in a hardware store, reverberating the quietly beautiful shot of Eastwood and Hilary Swank shaking hands in Million Dollar Baby's scrappy gym. Eastwood and screenwriter Nick Schenk tip their hats to Eastwood's past iconic hero with an extended scene in which Kowalski confronts three black hoodlums molesting a female Hmong youth. Pulling out nothing more than his index finger in the shape of a gun barrel, he tells one, “You don't listen good, do you?” as in his confrontation with a couple of white goons in Dirty Harry's San Francisco tunnel. (“You don't listen good, do you, asshole?” he asked, holding his .44 Magnum.)
Like Dirty Harry, Eastwood's Kowalski makes a show out of being a bigot, referring to nearly every imaginable minority in insensitive, politically incorrect language. The eventual embrace of the unknown in the form of the Hmongs who have moved in next door represents a shedding of a protective shield of sorts. The audience laughs at Kowalski's blustery racism because it is clear from the outset that the man is simply alone and frustrated, not wicked or cruel. Gran Torino's message at the outset of the Obama presidency may not be welcome as completely palatable to all who partake in it, but it does serve to point to the decency of at least some of those who are comforted by their fronts of intolerance. In this way the first half's aforementioned reliance on broad comedy succeeds in disarming the audience, so that the “message” half of the message movie goes down far more smoothly.
The timing of the enterprise is most advantageous for Eastwood and his film. Detroit's “Big Three” are on life support, and fading fast. Policies that have fostered widespread shearing of American jobs have levied a heavy toll on the undergirding of the nation's economy. Five trillion dollars worth in trade deficits since George Bush #41 perfectly illustrate, as barometers, the depth of today's depredation. *And there is the matter of the first black president-to-be having been recently elected.) Not unlike older directors reacting to troubling times, Eastwood has created a defiantly “old man's movie,” like John Ford's Seven Women or Howard Hawks' El Dorado. Eastwood's character's love for his American-made car speaks to a love of the old, particularly when the new, as seen in the ghostlike atmosphere of the Detroit ghetto in which lives, with its urban sprawl and decimated streets, appears to be nothing but deplorable in its blighted hopelessness.
With the patterns created here, Eastwood has manufactured the final distillation of his own trademark character in richly Platonic terms—wringing significant meaning out of one of the great archetypal personalities of not just cinema but American culture. He grabs a potentially hoary cliché and enriches it. Representing the closest thing to John Wayne today, Eastwood does not so much redefine his—and his characters'—place in the newer America, and world, as he does acknowledge it. And he comes to terms with it. And he finally forgives it while putting it out to pasture one last time.