Walter Kowalski, an old man with a dead spouse and an estranged family, finds himself alone with his dog. When his new Asian neighbours try to make contact with him, he welcomes them the way he knows best: with utmost xenophobia. Oddly, though, he befriends the next door kid, who’s in trouble with the boyz in the hood. How will Walter help him?
With a sparse setting of two houses, 20 people and a feature song, the aging Clint Eastwood offers one of the most meaningful American movies of this past decade. Re-enacting his vigilante act that made him famous, Eastwood deals with the two aspects of his cinema, the “right winger with a rifle” and the concerned humanist. Right now American cinema has a way of looking at the (not so) glorious 80’s, a revival making amends strangely. Part of this gesture, found in the newest Rambo and Rocky entries for instance, is a way to undermine today’s social environment, which has undergone serious plastic surgery called “politically correct”. These movies intend to say things straight, without the hood of the blockbuster / fantasy fare, Dark Knight or Watchmen to quote a powerful few. They also tend to sort out what was fun and what was not about self-justice. In Gran Torino, Eastwood plays an old Korean war vet, walking around with a gun and still inclined to pull the trigger. But does it “fit”?
In the 70’s Clint Eastwood almost launched and epitomized the vigilante genre under the rule of Sergio Leone. The spaghetti westerns which made him famous, with their “tooth for tooth” approach, were transposed in today’s realm with the following Dirty Harry slew. The violence became more immediate to our senses, and it was hailed either fascist or a metaphor of urban decay. Becoming a director himself, he crafted triple A dramas, concerned with the flaws and shortcomings of America’s history. All the while still churning the lesser implicated B romps like Firefox (1982), Heartbreak Ridge (1986), The Rookie (1990), or Space Cowboys (2000). But the paradox of a somewhat “concerned right winger” is at the core of Unforgiven (1992), Mystic River1 (2002), and Flags of our fathers (2006).
Coming of age, coming to terms
While France is still operating in the way of deciding what is serious and what is not, the boundary line has been broken a long time ago by American cinema. And here is an Astute movie dealing with Backdoor business, facing contemporary issues while addressing the country’s past culture and roots. While Mystic River was rather stoic, well observing the issues at play but offering no relief about it, the message deeply shifts here. What has changed? Between 2002 and 2008 the US has been seriously duped by the powers that be. While the title Gran Torino depicts the car, the passing of which to Tao symbolizes cultural inheritance, “the fire” Cormac McCarthy was talking about in The Road, is also a synonym for the old bird², reoffering hope in what a role model should be. Clint Eastwood buries the glorification of war and violence, symbolically sacrificing himself in the process. And it strikes a strong chord at a time when president-to-be Obama was asking fellow citizens to “raise your children the best you can” in his TV campaign.
Gran Torino is a landmark of the mid 90’s long term transformation of the American movie landscape. It has begun with Shyamalan’s appearance, whose films matched the B world with realist drama to global acclaim, and this trend became more pregnant after 9/11, with the recent side look at the Reagan years. Eastwood helms the whole thing here, yet beating his own jazzy rhythm.
1 Remember the shooting simulacra finale across Main Street, with the unifying ceremony marching on. Another similar take, more cynical, is to be found in Romero’s Land of the Dead fireworks scenes.
2 In English, “Gran” means “Grandfather”.