Dir: Clint Eastwood
Movies directed by Clint Eastwood, especially in recent decades, are not known for subtlety. Let’s admit, though much lauded, both Mystic River and Million Dollar Baby have the finesse of a charging elephant. That doesn’t make Eastwood a bad filmmaker (though I deplored Mystic River). We just have to shift our expectations. Let’s not forget, this is the guy who got his start on “Rawhide” and Sergio Leone Westerns, not mention multiple turns as Dirty Harry. The man is a staunch libertarian, for heaven’s sake.
In his second film this year,Gran Torino, which is rumored to be 78-year-old’s final starring role, Eastwood plays Walt Kowalski, an ornery widower who likes to sit on his porch downing PBRs and bemoaning the fact that his Michigan neighborhood has been overrun by minorities. Just like John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards, Walt is an emotionally damaged war veteran, who’s past wartime deeds have twisted him into an irascible racist. He has no qualms sputtering insensitive remarks at his Asian neighbors or pulling a gun on a group of African-Americans while doing it.
See, Walt is more interested in polishing his ’72 Gran Torino than interacting with anyone. But when his Hmong neighbors try to ingratiate themselves into his life, he unwittingly becomes a father figure to the teenage boy and girl who live next door. But let’s make no bones about it; Eastwood’s Walt is an unlikable bigot and though it is obvious he is heading for redemption, he does not become the cuddly septuagenarian one would expect. The stream of “gooks” and “zipperheads” that pours from his mouth is astonishing and the film does lose some points for using his gross racism for laughs. Honestly, most actors would not be able to pull off the role without being completely vilified. But still, Eastwood is not asking for us to love Walt, but pardon him for a life tormented by past atrocities.
So, if you haven’t seen the film, you may want to stop here. In some ways, Walt Kowalski is the summation of a career filled with stoic, dour characters. He is Dirty Harry, alone and dying, the Man With No Name after the treasure is gone. He just wants to be left alone. But, when his neighbors are tormented by a local gang, it is up to Walt to save them. However, Eastwood proffers an interesting question: can a cancer-ridden old man still muster up the courage to fight back? Well, not exactly the way we expect it.
We have seen many the Eastwood film where his character enters a shootout and single-handedly takes out multiple men, walking away unscathed. Hell, even in the finale of his anti-Western Unforgiven we see his William Munny blast a bar full of baddies. But in Gran Torino, Walt walks into a battle sans weapon, allowing himself to be gunned down to save his neighbors. Could this be Eastwood’s last stand? That rather than let the cancer consume him, he’s going down in a blaze of glory? It takes the showdown trope so prevalent in his treasured Westerns and turns it on its head. Could Eastwood be trying to tell us something? Like Walt, is he finally at peace with his own demons?