Somewhere around 1988’s Bird, Clint Eastwood’s career took a turn for the respectable. Four years later he had two Oscars for Unforgiven. And though Eastwood’s career as an auteur has had some detractors (people either love him, or find him highly overrated), his run in the 21st century has shown that he’s given up his “Right turn, Clyde” ways and been fully embraced by the academy. Except as an actor.
And Eastwood’s acting career has always been defined by what Sergio Leone said about him, and that’s that he’s basically a brick, a piece of stone to which you work around. And being leaden and of small range has always been the main criticism leveled against him. Like Jimmy Stewart, he played with that image, often turning his hard characters into psychotics, or fetishists (Tightrope and White Hunter, Black Heart come to mind), but he never received much love from the Academy.
Well, along comes Gran Torino, and Eastwood looks to be a front-runner. He’s essentially giving his swan song performance in a role that both plays and challenges his archetypical roles. And what does the Academy do? They ignore it. But audiences flocked to the film, getting the film to nearly $150 Million. And such is the dichotomy of Clint. Audiences still love him, but the Academy sees him more as a movie star, and with his handful of Oscars, they felt no need to reward him for his True Grit.
Gran Torino presents Eastwood as Walt Kowalski, who enters the film as his wife is being buried. No one seems to actually mourn her loss, instead they spend the funeral acting like dicks, or worrying about what Walt will get up to as he’s left alone. Walt is something of a racist. He spits all sorts of racial epithets at his neighbors, as his whole neighborhood has become a melting pot. His next door neighbors are from Hmong, and Walt gets involved in their lives when Thao (Bee Vang) tries to steal his Gran Torino. Walt chases him off, but then stops a gang that threatens Thao and his family. Walt unintentionally becomes seen as a hero, and gains the grudging respect of Thao’s sister Sue (Ahney Her). Walt is taken in a bit by his neighbors, and decides to teach Thao how to be a man, but the gang problems for everyone escalate.
Slow getting going, there’s a sequence where Walt is taken to the next door party (on his birthday) and after a bit settles in for drinks and food. In this section, there’s a bit where Eastwood’s eating a bunch of Korean food where he’s making faces but enjoying himself, and in that moment the film comes alive. Though it’s not much of a trick if your star is Clint Eastwood, the film manages to turn Clint from a simple racist into someone who just uses offensive language because it’s his culture, and it shows that he doesn’t so much use it out of hatred but a defensive posturing. It’s meant to keep the world out. He’s an old man, and he finds it hard to change his ways, but towards the end he also sees that he can be of purpose.
The film is Eastwood, and rarely does he have anyone of great worth to bounce off of other than John Carroll Lynch’s barber Martin, and the script is creaky at times, and way heavy handed (when Lynch and Eastwood first sling offenses at each other, it’s with such heavy handedness it’s no longer human shorthand), but it works because Walt is a fully formed character, and the film gets at something and at a number of people in the world who are outmoded, and racist (or prejudiced) but not necessarily bad people. And that’s interesting.
Alas, the ending is a bit of an eye roller, and it’s pretty obvious from the get-go where the film is heading. It’s still emotional, in its way, but – like most of the rest of the film – it has no subtlety at all. Eastwood’s direction is nice and plain, it’s steady, unobtrusive, but the performances he gets out of most of his actors suggests that he’s happy trafficking in television acting. It’s fitting though that the film was ignored by the academy, and rewarded at the box office. It’s the perfect send off for one of cinema’s great stars.
Warner Brothers presents the film in widescreen (2.35:1) and 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround, and 5.1 TrueHD. Extras include three featurettes: “The Eastwood Way” (20 min.), a great behind the scenes look at the making of the film (and a Blu-ray exclusive), “Manning the Wheel” (10 min.) on the cast relationship to cars, and “Gran Torino: More than a Car” (4 min.), which talks to car buffs about Detroit metal. Skimpy would be the word, but the transfer is immaculate, as to be expected. The film also comes with a digital copy.