Gran Torino is the latest offering from the cinematic institution of Clint Eastwood. The old cowboy directs, stars and producers the film, and confronts the themes of ageing, race relations, social-decay and, inevitably for an Eastwood film, what it means to be a man.
Eastwood plays Walt Kowalski, an elderly, taciturn and racist war veteran who is aghast at the rapidly changing demographic of the Michigan suburb in which he lives.
We first meet Walt at the funeral of his wife. He stands awkwardly with his two sons, with whom he shares little sense of a relationship, and glowers at his disrespectful and patronising grandchildren.
Later that day, while sat on his porch with his American flag and enjoying his favourite pastime of beer and cigarettes, Walt observes to his obvious displeasure a Hmong family (an ethnic minority from Laos and Cambodia) moving into the vacated house next door.
The title of the film refers to the 1972 Ford sports car made popular by the Starsky and Hutch series. It is Walt’s pride and joy and when he finds Thao (Bee Vang), the shy and retiring boy of next door, attempting to steal the car, Walt reacts by sticking a rifle in his face.
The incident, unwittingly, will have a profound effect on both their lives as Walt begins to become increasingly involved in the trials and tribulations of his new foreign neighbours and begins a cross-cultural, surrogate father/son relationship with the young boy he considered killing.
At the age of 78, Clint Eastwood’s stamina and appetite for film-making is insatiable. He may also be, in an increasingly globalised industry, the last truly American film-maker.
Gran Torino closely follows The Changeling, released late last year. Starring Angelina Jolie in her best performance yet, The Changeling was a melodrama with a rare sense of weight and austerity and should have received greater acknowledgment at the recent Oscar ceremonies.
The Changeling and the Iwo Jima films released the year before, are all period pieces. Unlike so many films, they don’t seem to be rooted in the here and now but infact belong to a modern extension of the classical Hollywood era that Eastwood is so indebted to.
Although an enjoyable and gently comedic modern parable about life-lessons and redemption, Gran Torino does not match up to the high bar Eastwood has set himself. The America of yesterday seems to be a subject he finds easier to approach than the one of today.
Eastwood adopts Walt Kowalski with effortless ease and, with his iconic, whispery Spaghetti Western delivery, animates the character in a way that few other actors could. The racism and sexism which is central to both character and plot is handled with little sensitivity, but Eastwood gets away with it because the audience can sense a sentimental denouement from the early stages, and are willing to wait for the pay-off.
Unfortunately, Clint is let down by clichéd dialogue, scripting which too comfortably fulfils Hollywood conventions, and weak, stereotypical minor characters. If Eastwood (a notorious conservative who campaigned for McCain) really does harbour legitimate concerns about the erosion of social and moral values, this is the wrong vehicle for him to communicate it.
Gran Torino is straightforward, brash and macho with a soft heart within but, for a man of such a distinguished career, it’s a lightweight offering.
It will, however, almost certainly be Clint Eastwood’s last screen role and, for that reason alone, this film may enjoy a longer shelf-life than some of his stronger and more nuanced films. Equally, for that reason alone, Gran Torino is worth the admission price.