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.
- 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.