Monday, January 12, 2009

More Thoughts on Gran Torino

One of the perils of reviewing films--especially new films that are still in limited release at the time the review is being written--is being careful to not "spoil" the experience of others.

In my review of Clint Eastwood's Gran Torino, I elected to not cover certain issues that were primarily germane to the film's climax.

Seeing as the film is now in wide release, I have decided to share some thoughts I have had on Gran Torino since seeing it but have stayed quiet about for fear of "spoiling" the film.

So, a full spoiler warning is in effect:

  • One of the subtler points about the film is Eastwood's character, Walt Kowalski, using his cigarette lighter, which has the symbol of the First Cavalry Division (the yellow shield with the black diagonal stripe and black horse's head). This establishes three things: firstly, Kowalski takes care of his lighter; he has had the lighter since 1951, when he bought it in Korea, so it symbolizes simple American manufacturing durability which is today lost; and finally, if one is allowed to make such an assumption, Kowalski--who is coughing up blood from his lungs--is a victim of the Korean War. Since soldiers were given cigarettes to smoke, and encouraged to smoke, many became addicted to nicotine. In a certain way, then, Kowalski is one of the more slowly-realized casualties of a war. (Again, this final thought is assumption, but not unreasonable speculation.)
  • The Christ imagery, and particularly of the final scene with Kowalski alive, may at first glance appear to be "too much," but there is something to be said for what Eastwood's characters have long represented. Kowalski is ultimately giving up his life for his friends. What makes the imagery work for me is the way Eastwood's hand opens up so the camera can take a good, long look at the aforementioned lighter. The shot looking down on his corpse takes in the stream of blood that is trickling down his wrist--with the militarism represented by the lighter, this crucifix imagery is rendered, in a way, more universal.
  • Just as I noted in my review, the film does linger like an older John Ford or Howard Hawks picture. It is essentially fairly complicated, but with a simple coating that makes it quite accessible and a little deceptive in its form.
  • Likewise, the film should be--and doubtless is being--compared to The Shootist. John Wayne's final performance, in which he finally lays down his life, in part for the son figure of Ron Howard's, remains poignant today. Eastwood's borrowing of these motifs is worthy homage, and there is no other actor-director who could get away with it--but he can and should be able to. The film is in this way a billet-doux to the American heroes of varying stripes, like Bogart or Wayne, who often acted gruffly or insensitively but, finally, tried to do good.
  • Kowalski's repeated comments of slaying a "gook," a "kid," who wished nothing more than to surrender in Korea recalls Eastwood's Iwo Jima films--and especially Letters from Iwo Jima, in which American soldiers are shown mercilessly snuffing out the lives of Japanese soldiers wishing to surrender and survive. Kowalski tells one of the Hmong gangbangers that he could shoot his head off, go back inside and sleep like a baby--obviously thinking of his past in Korea.
  • Eastwood's depiction of sybarites again seems to indicate that Eastwood views this kind of person to be rather worthless.
  • The phone call of Kowalski's to one of his man-child sons has lingered with other fairly "small" scenes. The look on his son's face after his father hangs up is rather perfect: the quizzical realization that his father would never call--so why did he now?--hits home. Check Spelling
  • Gran Torino is an interesting film, and a fine vehicle--pun intended--to be Eastwood's acting swansong. The one thing that hit me just as Kowalski was being shot at the end was that he was entrusting the Hmong community to rat out "their own," despite it being established repeatedly that "the Hmong keep their mouths shut." Similarly, the police and judicial system is suddenly entrusted to save the day, and keep the Hmong gangbangers locked up, as one cop says. This is most ironic coming from Dirty Harry Eastwood--trusting above all else the Hmongs he had seen as alien, and "the system" he had, in earlier incarnations, seen as bankrupt. A strange, fascinating send-off.


Daniel Getahun said...

Alexander, I'm still backed up on a number of your reviews but am making the rounds on GT because I consider it one of the best movies I've seen this year. Here you have a brilliant analysis, as one would expect, about some of the really complex character traits of Walt. I also find your last point about the Hmong community interesting.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you, Daniel. These were all thoughts I considered placing in the review, but decided not to... Gran Torino continues to linger in my thoughts for all of these reasons and more.

mc said...

Tremendous collection of thoughts, Alexander. I really do love this movie. Your thoughts are unique and I understand why you didn't want to bring these up until now. It really is an Eastwood masterpiece.

garth said...

great thoughts on the ins and outs of the reverb station and personality of this fine viewing experience. a serious closer of change and ruthless accuracy. a sometime distanced portrait of notes on the great traagedy of interests andrew

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you very much, mc. The more I think about Gran Torino, the more I like it, and want to return to it myself eventually.

Thanks, Garth. I'll take that as a compliment.

Kevin J. Olson said...

"Just as I noted in my review, the film does linger like an older John Ford or Howard Hawks picture. It is essentially fairly complicated, but with a simple coating that makes it quite accessible and a little deceptive in its form."

This is one of the crucial factors in either liking, or disliking Eastwood's work. I've always been a fan of his Hawkes-esque, plain-Jane filmmaking style, because there is always something deeper lurking beneath; ready to boil over; it's up to the audience to figure that out, and I like that Eastwood trusts us as viewers to do that part on our own.

However, and this is a big problem I have with the film, in Gran Torino there seems to be too much meandering, thus giving too much air time to the racial slurs and bigotry of the film. I think Eastwood chose the right metaphor for his swansong (I'm right there with ya on the ending), but it's the intermediary parts of the movie that really took me out of the whole thing.

The symbolism is there, but it only exists because it's Eastwood. Had this been ANY other actor it would have felt like a Lifetime movie. That's a big IF, and I know it's something of a nitpick, but it's there and really caused a distraction; making it all the more difficult to get really involved in the story.

Even though we differ on the impact of Gran Torino, I loved reading your well articulated thoughts on the picture.

Good stuff.

Alexander Coleman said...

Kevin, it's so good to see you here.

I agree that if--and you're right, it's a monumental "if"--this were any other actor, the film most likely would have never worked. There are films like that, though, at least some of which we today revere as classics. Take away this actor, some suggest, and the whole conceit would be betrayed.

Gran Torino fits in that mold. When we watch Walt Kowalski, we, the audience, intrinsically recognize him as Clint Eastwood, and we bring all of that baggage with us. That baggage works for the part, for the film, for what he (and the screenwriter) are trying to do. Kowalski is as much Eastwood's final incarnation as J.B. Books was John Wayne's final incarnation. As such, their characters could only receive one conclusion--one that Eastwood denied Bill Munny in Unforgiven... So I'm grateful to Schenk and Eastwood that they "pulled the trigger," so to speak.

There is quite a bit of meandering in Gran Torino--I can't and won't deny that. Ultimately, I think this film was better-suited to meandering than many others, and, while there are abrasive elements to Kowalski that will turn at least some people off, I liked that Schenk and Eastwood didn't "chicken out," by making the film a more bland definitive "character arc": Kowalski is the same man at the end as he was at the beginning, but his friendship with the Hmongs has come to demand certain things from him that he never offered to anyone, including himself, before.

Anyway, thank you very much for the thoughts and kind words, Kevin!

Sam Juliano said...

Today I read a blogger review on GRAN TORINO which made the film seem worse than PLAN NINE FROM OUTER SPACE. The author was apparently offended (on a personal level) by the film, and pompously tried to assert that the film was exceedingly "racist," a contention that a first-grader would realize!

I think you Mr. Coleman (and the equally effervescent Daniel Getahun) have offered persuasive arguments for GT, even if Dan seemed to like it a bit more than Alexander. The enlightening "cigarette-lighter-crucifix" parallel, the reference to John Ford and Howard Hawks and of course to THE SHOOTIST and the corresponding characteristic of American heroes 'doing good' in the end, etc.
The 'sybarites are worthless' and that telling phone call (in one of the films most observant scenes) are excellent segments to bring to the table here of this flawed but still entertaining and well-acted film.

Daniel Getahun said...

Haha, Sam - I can respect people (like Jason Bellamy) who have legitimate critical thought on the film, but simply writing it off as one of the worst movies ever doesn't jive with me so well.

I think Alexander and I actually appreciate different aspects of GT, but that makes it all the more enjoyable sometimes.

Alexander Coleman said...

Well, I do appreciate much of what Daniel appreciates, and I have a feeling he appreciates some of what I appreciate. Haha. :)

Gran Torino is proving to be quite the divisive little film.

I would suggest that the blogger about whom Sam is writing is unquestionably missing the forest for the trees, as they say, or used to, in any case.