Clint Eastwood may be 78, but he proves in Gran Torino that he can still spit, swear, and shoot better than most. He’s soundly vanquished John McCain, and now only Robert Mugabe remains as a challenger to the title of world’s most vigorous geriatric. By starring in, directing, and producing this light-hearted racial revenge tragedy, Eastwood shows he has the energy levels of a King Lear. In contrast to such ebullience, however, Nick Schenk’s screenplay tires very early on. By the halfway point the script is shuffling along in slippers with a dazed look on its face, wondering if it’s said all this already (which indeed it has, as have many other films besides). By the end, it has wet itself.
Eastwood plays Walt Kowalski, an embittered, racist Korean War veteran who in his twilight years finds himself a lone point of Aryan light in an otherwise Asian neighborhood. It’s a small world after all. Yet when trouble arrives in the form of rival ethnic gangs, Walt realizes his enemy’s enemy maybe isn’t so bad, and once he turns local vigilante his prejudices are slowly eroded by the onslaught of fondness from his grateful Hmong neighbors.
By far the most enjoyable element of this well-worn nonsense of a movie is Eastwood himself, of course. That’s why we’re all here. He’s still playing roughly the same character, but it still works. “Get out of town” has become “Get off my lawn,” but it’s still the Old West as far as Eastwood’s concerned, and he has the armaments to prove it. Oh boy, we think, are they messing with the wrong pensioner now. In Gran Torino the old pro does not disappoint, growling, twitching, wincing, and squinting his way through the center of every scene. Like Billie Holiday, or Muhammad Ali towards the end, Eastwood has a narrow range but is an absolute genius at exploiting it. The secret of his onscreen effectiveness is to do as little as possible, and where lesser actors would tend to take the script literally and deliver the line “Yes,” Clint simply exhales noisily. By now his tricks are getting obvious, but one gets the sense that he knows this, and is giving subliminal little winks to the camera every now and then, as if to say “Let’s not over-think this, folks; it’s just entertainment.” And, in fairness, so it is.
Eastwood, bless him, still fancies himself as a musician, though. Given that he’s both director and producer there was, unfortunately, no third party with the authority to prevent him personally singing the song featured in the final scene. Beyond his own lack of ability, there is also—without wishing to spoil the climax of the film—a pretty strong narrative reason why this device is so jaw-droppingly wrong.
That’s the review of the film. Now for the review of the audience. The lines rewarded with the largest laughs were those featuring offensive racial slurs. The biggest laughs of all came when Eastwood’s Kowalski was racist (and, even better, racist while holding a gun). Just as in As Good As It Gets—a film that Gran Torino resembles in many ways—Hollywood assumes (perhaps correctly) that many of us are frustrated racists or homophobes. These “redemption” films exist arguably not for the journeys to enlightenment to which they bear witness, but for the guilty thrill they offer in their early expositions of prejudice. It seems we need to cheer on those who dare to say what we can’t nowadays for fear of losing our jobs, our moral standing, or our front teeth.
Should we find this troubling? Or is our laughter merely evidence of the catharsis, the benign emotional release that has always been the key effect of narrative art? When he reads Anna Karenina, after all, even the most ardent defender of marriage surely wants Anna to run off with Vronsky (otherwise the novel fails). Perhaps we need these make-believe worlds in order to satisfy our desire to see valuable things get smashed up, to see what the worst thing that could possibly happen would look like, and to know how it would make us feel. Like dreams, the arts probe us for our secret fears and, in so doing, purge us of them—a lightning rod for the dark questions in us. Thus the audience laughs in recognition of the thrill, not in endorsement of the act. That said, I’d still wait till Gran Torino comes out on DVD if I were you.