Holiday Movies Pre-Reviewed, Reviewed: Gran Torino

by |
12/17/2008 1:00 PM |

[In the L's Holiday Gift Guide Issue, we presented a Holiday Film Preview of sorts: Reviews of Movies We Haven't Seen, banking on the predictability of the holiday-movie industrial complex, and also our own tendency to review movies before seeing them. So let's see how we did. Here, I, who wrote the one on Gran Torino, compare my preview to my actual response.]

I said…

Directing himself for the first time since Million Dollar Baby, America’s last beloved Republican stars as a curmudgeonly grandpa learning the all-American value of tolerance — thanks to an Asian-American gangbanger he first pulls an M-1 on so as to get him, literally, off his lawn. As with Changeling, this is a liberal message-movie made in a resolutely conservative style.

In fact…

The Gran Torino Drinking Game is the best thing to happen to alcohol since Pabst Blue Ribbon, which coincidentally is all Clint ever drinks. And he drinks it a lot, as befitting a crusty old Korean War vet holding it down in a Detroit ghetto. I’m thinking a Lebowski-style drink-when-the-protagonist-drinks thing. Plus half of you drink whenever he says gook/zipperhead/eggroll/dragon lady/some other Asian slur (bitterly or tenderly), and the other half of you drink for all the other slurs. Also you should take some of your drug of choice every time Clint growls, snarls, or acts like an old dude who, as the L’s Nicolas Rapold points out, has definitely seen Dirty Harry too many times.

What I’m saying is, Clint Eastwood really does brandish an M-1 and growl “Get off my lawn.” Three times! He says it three times. In the same scene. It is very amazing.

And while I was more or less on point with the conventional moviemaking, which tracks in cute jokes and hackneyed scenes the father-son bond between Walt Kowalski (Clint) and his Hmong neighbor, I wonder if the incredible squareness of Gran Torino isn’t at least somewhat intentional, a way of evoking (and maybe parodying) the archetypes (or possibly stereotypes) it deals in.

L contributor Benjamin Strong, who really likes this movie, has called it a Western, and it very much is. Not just because Clint defends his homestead — and not just because in the final turn of the plot he starts preparing for a vigilante showdown.

It’s a Western because of its obsession with sexual purity — he defends, and later sets out to avenge, the teenage girl next door (well-written in Nick Schenk’s script, and well played by Ahney Her, who gets the awkward smartass’s too-wordy insults perfectly). I do wish the final movement had been a full-on Searchers kidnapping scenario — it would have been an interesting move.

Partly, that is, because Gran Torino is also a Western in its understanding of the racial other — grappling towards racial rapprochement, while still using other nonwhite characters to instill an implicit sense of threat (or else yuks).

It’s also Western because in the main part of the movie, the bonding, relies on a corny burlesque of male camraderie only enjoyable as camp.

And the reason that this movie about an old Ford plant assembly-line worker is a Western is because it’s an elegy for this dying, flawed (he’s semi-estranged from his real sons, and probably didn’t raise ‘em well; Kowalski is a perfect but-your-parents-were-immigrants-too bigot) exemplar of blue-collar American manhood, and an examination of his possibility for redemption. (Especially because it’s been released, perfectly, to coincide with the death of the American auto industry.)

I said “redemption” just now, and you better believe I mean it — after long conversations with his babyfaced priest, in which he alludes to his Korean War experiences, Walt finally does go to confession, and says not much. Later, though, in the heat of a conversation, he unburdens himself through a screen door, scrimlike, like the divider in a confession booth. It’s a nice touch from Clint; he must have worried that people wouldn’t get it, though, because a couple scenes later he goes for the second most blatant Jesus pose of the year (we’ll deal with #1 tomorrow).