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January 14, 2009 - Rick Chatenever
After spending the last 20 years establishing himself as one of the great movie directors of our time, Clint Eastwood spent this week reminding audiences how he got started in the business.
His “Gran Torino” — which deservedly sits atop the week’s box office charts — features as fine an acting job as he has ever given over his long, storied career.
As Walt Kowalski, a Korean War vet and retired Ford autoworker, he begins the movie by burying his wife. Then he heads for his Detroit front porch to suck down Pabst Blue Ribbons and snarl at what the world has come to. Chief target of the racist mutterings are the members of the Hmong family that has moved in next door. The apple-cheeked young priest in his wife’s cherished church is also right up there on his list of things Walt wishes would just get the bleep out of his life.
The fact that Walt makes so much of this politically incorrect stuff so funny attests to Eastwood’s often overlooked gifts as an actor. True, he did make those “Any Which Way” comedies co-starring an orangutan in the ’70s, but those were just dumb. “Gran Torino” isn’t.
Under Walt’s nonstop, blistering racial epithets, Eastwood subtly sneaks in a parable of redemption. After the son of the family next door (Bee Vang) ineptly tries to steal Walt’s prize Gran Torino muscle car as part of a gang initiation, his family insists that the boy make amends by doing chores for the old codger. You can guess how happy this makes Walt. The boy’s name is Thao; Walt calls him “Toad.”
But at the hands of Thao’s irrepressible sister, Sue (Ahney Her), Walt’s heart slowly starts to unfreeze. Confiding to his reflection in a bathroom mirror, he realizes he has more in common with the family next door than with his own flesh and blood.
You know going in that the movie is headed for a tragically violent — yet noble — climax. When the gunfire starts, it pulls “Gran Torino” out of the realm of unexpected comedy, seemingly steering in the direction of Dirty Harry territory, where it only takes one lone urban avenger to solve all the problems of modern American society.
That’s the consensus among critics and the audiences now echoing Dirty Harry’s immortal, “Go ahead, make my day” to explain the film’s appeal.
The way I see it is just the opposite. Walt may have an American flag on his porch, but his victory comes from tearing down everything it represents in his mind. Rather than working his racist one-liners merely for their shock value the way Archie Bunker used to, Walt is all about what happens when you open a closed mind.
At this stage in his career, Clint Eastwood is revisiting the icons he has added to our culture, mindful of the toll killing takes on its perpetrator as well as its victim. Always a man of few words, he can now slice through the cheap action-figure illusions of movie heroism just with the look on his face.
When he revisited the iconic myths he created in the old West, his broken-down gunfighter scratched out some heroism, but remained “Unforgiven.”
This time around, with the realization that violence can never be anything other than a dead end and the only way out is to love your neighbor — really — his on-screen icon finally finds salvation.
Always an artist in his time as well as ahead of it, Eastwood is one of the subjects of “Wisdom,” an inspiring documentary set for next Wednesday’s Maui Film Festival celebration of Barack Obama’s election. (More details are on the movie pages.)
But “Gran Torino’s” message about the necessity for tearing down boundaries and barriers was also echoed in the Golden Globe Award ceremonies earlier this week. Always a great party, this time there was a new energy in the air, as the Global part of the title assumed new meaning.
Paced by Kate Winslet and Sally Hawkins amidst all the great work by the other international actresses and actors nominated this year, the evening still belonged to “Slumdog Millionaire.”
Set in India and telling of a street kid who improbably rises to fame on a TV game show, the only people not surprised by all the wins, including Best Picture, are everyone who has seen the movie.
Directed by Danny Boyle in the city of Mumbai, which would make tragic headlines shortly before the movie was released, it is unlike any other film you’ve seen — surpassing the hype with hope.
Even amidst the grimmest realities it uncovers in the gutter, it’s crazy enough to still believe in life and love. Whether it’s an American icon or a couple of unknown Indian kids up there on the screen, that’s always been what the best stories have been about.
• Contact Rick Chatenever at email@example.com
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