28 December 2008

Gran Torino

Gran Torino (2008)
Directed by Clint Eastwood. Starring Clint Eastwood, Christopher Carley, Bee Vang, Ahney Her, Brian Haley, John Carroll Lynch.

Gran Torino marks the first time that Clint Eastwood has acted in a film since 2004 and Million Dollar Baby. I wouldn’t be surprised if it is his last; he’s said almost as much, and he spends most of his creative talents directing films in which he doesn’t appear. If Gran Torino is the end for the Monument Valley of screen icons, I couldn’t think of one more appropriate. It’s a quiet, dignified, and career-defining send-off for an actor.

Gran Torino isn’t as magnificent a film as The Outlaw Josey Wales, Unforgiven, or Mystic River. Nor does it have as edgy or unusual a performance from its star as White Hunter, Black Heart and the criminally unknown The Beguiled do. But Gran Torino is quintessential Clint Eastwood in his twilight, made with a lack of histrionics, fascinated with themes of age and sacrifice, willing to look at American culture without irony or sermonizing… and with one beautiful tough bastard in the middle who makes every grunt or grimace, each snarled insult, into a piece of poetry.

Walt Kowalski (a name that seems to me a blend of Walt Disney and existential driver Kowalski from Vanishing Point) looks like Dirty Harry in retirement, and enough critics have aped that sentiment already. Kowalski is a squinty, grouchy Korean War vet living in a dying suburb of Detroit. A former Ford autoworker who has just lost his wife and who refuses his son’s (Brian Haley) entreaty for him to move out of a neighborhood that slanted toward a minority population long ago, Kowalski just wants everybody to leave him the hell alone so he can drink Pabst on his porch with his dog at his feet or tinker in the garage beside his mint condition ‘72 Gran Torino. The local parish priest (an earnest and clear-eyed Christopher Carley) seems like the only person who has any interest in the old man, and that’s because Kowalski’s wife had asked the young priest to follow up with him.

You might say that Eastwood could play this part in his sleep. And that’s true, but that’s an amazing compliment. His ability to create the granite-visage of Kowalski, make simple growls carry the weight of anvils, and the portray a 78-year-old man so that it looks like he could take out a whole gang merely by raising the corner of his lip in a snarl is pure movie magic. Eastwood is a national treasure of American film, and in a year when we lost Paul Newman, seeing Clint strut across the screen with such consuming presence is… well, I have a hard time describing it. It’s the sort of fantasy of the big screen that we’ll never see again.

I’m having a hard time writing this review, if you might have noticed, because I’ve loved Clint Eastwood as an actor and director for so long that any sense that he might be saying goodbye, even if he lives for ten more years and makes ten more films, causes an overwhelming stir of emotions in me. Eastwood directs films the way I like seeing them directed. He acts in ways I love seeing actors act. He’s something so damned special it gets me teary-eyed thinking about it.

Oh, what the hell was I talking about? Anything else you want to know about Gran Torino, except that you should see it because who knows how many more times you’ll get to see a first-run, new Eastwood film? Do you need me to tell you how oddly endearing you’ll find a man who spews out racial slurs with every other word? Or how this fellow develops a friendship with the Hmong family next door that doesn’t have an ounce of calculated sentimentality to it? Or how Eastwood again visits his themes of sacrifice and the harsh reality of dying in a way you’ve seen before, but which never becomes tired?

I guess I did just tell you that.

But I don’t want to write about this film any more.

Because I’m already missing Clint.

And he isn’t even gone.