By Ray Pride
Forgive me for paying homage to perhaps the single corniest lede I have ever read to a film review, which was of “Days of Thunder,” but which I’m appropriating:
Vroom-vroom. Gentlemen, it’s time to start your engines for “Gran Torino.”
Holy Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award! “Grand Torino” is a dark comedy, an engaged anecdote about class and race, a stripped-down example of palooka art, and Clint Eastwood, at 78, has made a modest yet almost radical entertainment. It’s a gleeful astonishment.
Eastwood’s always been a simple shooter, letting cameras roll on rehearsals and calling it a keeper. The results can be striking or strange, as in the work of another veteran filmmaker, Woody Allen. Sometimes the effect of working quickly is a movie with graceful notes like “Vicky Christina Barcelona,” and sometimes it’s hollow bunkum like “Cassandra’s Dream.” And even in a well-regarded movie like “Match Point,” performances seem otherworldly strange, especially in how the actors seem almost never to engage with each other. A fascinating effect, but an intentional one? I’d like to think of Eastwood as one of the most conscious of filmmakers, even if he’s known for picking up a script and shooting as-is.
Stories of John Ford only shooting enough footage to make a scene, just barely, and in some shots breaking established visual grammar, such as characters moving in the “wrong” screen direction, tampering with seamless, invisible style; or “crossing the axis,” that is, making the difference between the angles of two shots either overly broad or acute so that a mild formal hiccup might occur. Why? Because he could and because he was John Ford.
In “Gran Torino,” Walt Kowalski is a Detroit retiree, a Korean War veteran, now a widower. A large American flag graces the front of the house. He’s a walking definition of “politically incorrect.” From his first scowl and squint of eagle eye standing at the front of a church before his wife’s casket, in which he audibly grrrowls like a cartoon back-alley cur, I was giddy as a girl child. Well, whatever… as Walt tends to say.
A widower who doesn’t like his children, Walt’s cast aside. They’re inattentive, grasping drips. He doesn’t care for his wife’s religion. He’s a 78-year-old man in a no-longer Polish neighborhood with ghosts and with new faces, largely Hmong. Still, he has moments of autumnal rest: on his porch, popping a PBR, admiring the Gran Torino in the drive at sunset, murmuring to his faithful, elderly golden dog, “Ainnnt-she-sweet.” Full stop.
Lives collide after teenage neighbor Thao (Bee Vang) is pressured by a gang to steal Walt’s treasure. But an unlikely savior lives within. Eastwood adopts a growl for Walt that’s not quite a Christian Bale maw of cracked glass, but to actually hear “What th’ hell is this? Get. Off. My. Lawnnnn” from behind his bolt-action weapon. “I useta stack fucks like you five-feet-high in Korea and use ya for sandbags” is the coldest racially insensitive line I’ve heard from an older actor since Rip Torn turned to a female, Asian-American executive on an episode of “The Larry Sanders Show” and inquired, “Didn’t I kill you in Korea?” Eastwood’s after more than the gag: not a half-an-hour in, the unvarnished man is revealed. Flawed. Casually racist. Unregenerate. Dirty Archie (Bunker). Who will he be ninety minutes from now? “Get off my lawn.” (He’s got the verbals about “dagos” and Jews, too.) “Hard-nosed Polack sonofabitch,” his barber (John Carroll Lynch in a nice turn) happily calls after him. “See you in three weeks, prick.” “Not if I see you first, dipshit.”
Pared-down images abound. For instance, when Walt enters the garage where his car’s threatened, rifle on his shoulder, Eastwood places the camera behind himself, the cowl of the overhead light dancing above his head and shivering a fall of decades of dust on his hair and shoulders. Simple. Epic. Dust to dust and all that.
There’s no tincture of Park City earnestness. If Eastwood weren’t on to making his next two features, “Gran Torino” would have been a virtuous opening night film for Sundance 2009. But I don’t know what younger filmmaker would be suited for this mix. What’s on show is an old man’s art. Old. Man. Clipped, stripped, frontal, not in the least sclerotic. Call it impatient precision. And there is tenderness, a streak of kindliness in his performance as a bigot who warms to humanity, like an American Vittorio De Sica film. (Critic David Ehrenstein is reminded of “Umberto D.”)
It’s an “if-you-have-but-eyes-to-see” movie: if you sense the genuine, glorious strengths of “Gran Torino,” you can appreciate its idiosyncratic carborundum grace. If not, you’ll be asking your date, “And WTF was that ending?”
What does it mean to be an old man, alone, with a gun? The decline of masculinity? Masculinity in crisis? The slow dying of the light? “Gran Torino”? Well, whatever… It’s a beaut.
“Gran Torino” opens Friday.