This is the interval when the Year That Was in the centers of civilization drags on into the Year That Is in the boondocks. The interval of overlap.
Clint Eastwood, for the occasion, has repeated his pattern of a couple of years ago when he laid claim to two films in the final quarter, hurrying up the release of Letters from Iwo Jima to get in under the Oscar deadline once the reception for Flags of Our Fathers had been gauged cooler than anticipated. I was one of the few who preferred (slightly) the earlier arrival, but sure enough the Oscar nominators smiled upon the latter and snubbed the other. Seeing as how those two were opposite sides of the same coin, an American side and a Japanese side to the same WWII battle, partly shot in the same locales, it didn’t seem so extraordinary that Eastwood was suddenly cranking out movies at the rate of William Wellman circa 1933. They went together.
This last quarter’s tandem, however, are completely separate coins of distinctly different denominations. Changeling, a thin dime, was the late October arrival, on schedule with Flags of Our Fathers, and although the name of Angelina Jolie is getting bandied about for the customarily sparse competition over Best Actress (I personally can count no more than 148 performances by leading actresses who were better than Angelina Jolie in 2008), it’s apparent that Changeling was not going to be much of a player in the Oscar tournament. So here came Eastwood again in December with a hefty half-dollar, Gran Torino, not only behind the camera but back on screen for the first time since Million Dollar Baby four winters ago, and hinting, or threatening, that this could be his last time ever on screen, last time eligible, that is, for an acting Oscar. (Just in case the Academy members cared to take that into consideration.) As before, we in the boondocks didn’t get his deadline-beater till past the deadline.
The role is without doubt a fat one for Eastwood, a softball lobbed right down the middle of the plate and effortlessly belted over the fence: a sort of Grumpy Old Man version of Dirty Harry, a scowler and a growler (looking and sounding uncannily like a dog in defense of a T-bone), a new widower named Walt Kowalski who has seen his Detroit neighborhood taken over by Hmong immigrants (“HUM-mong,” in his two-syllable pronunciation), a hard-ass retiree defined by a pair of prized possessions, the M-1 rifle that commemorates his service in the Korean War (“Dad’s still living in the Fifties”) and the ’72 Gran Torino that commemorates his life’s work on the Ford assembly line. It qualifies as an unadulterated pleasure to see this master reactor snarl audibly at the sight of his granddaughter’s navel ring during his wife’s funeral, or to hear him spurn the parish priest who had vowed to the wife on her deathbed that he’d coax her husband into the confessional (“You’re a twenty-seven-year-old virgin who likes to hold the hand of old ladies and promises them eternity”), or to watch him come to the aid of a damsel in distress against a group of black street toughs (“You ever notice how once in a while you come across someone you shouldn’t have fucked with? That’s me”). But the blatant racism in his relations with his Asian neighbors, whereby he runs through every applicable epithet in a thesaurus of slang (past “fishhead” and “gook” all the way to “zipperhead”), is more problematic. An adulterated pleasure.
We know that Eastwood has practiced this sort of revulsionary routine before (vis-à-vis Indians in The Outlaw Josey Wales and The Eiger Sanction, women in The Enforcer and Million Dollar Baby, and so on); we know that in Letters from Iwo Jima he looked at the Second World War through Japanese eyes; we know he made Bird on Charlie Parker and is presently at work on a film on Nelson Mandela; we know he’s not a racist; we know he means it in fun; we know Clint Eastwood is not Walt Kowalski. And that’s precisely what makes it problematic. We know him too well, embrace him too warmly, trust him too far, indulge him too much. We’re prone to feel too comfy-cozy with him. Eastwood’s presence in the role automatically takes the edge off the racism (“We used to stack fucks like you five feet high in Korea, use ’em for sandbags”) in a way that just wouldn’t happen if the role were occupied by, say, Gene Hackman, Rip Torn. And taking the edge off the racism is not altogether a good idea, regardless how many laughs you get out of it.
What ultimately redeems him and his film is not the conventional, formulaic, soft-hearted and simple-minded warming of relations with the two weakly acted Hmong teenagers next door, and not the tighter focus of his wrath on the Asian street gang that’s terrorizing the neighborhood, and not the dawning of self-knowledge (“I may not be the most pleasant person to be around”) nor the single tear he sheds (Oscar voters, take note) over his war guilt or his walls of self-isolation or whatever, and not even the expediently plotted climactic act of karmic restitution (which in honesty had slim chance to work out as planned). No, none of that. What redeems him and his film, lending it, for all its entertainment value, a sense of gravity and personal conviction, is simply its place in line in his ongoing penance for the offhand violence, the incalculable casualties, of his earlier career: its place behind Unforgiven, A Perfect World, Mystic River, etc. Once was not enough. It was not just lip service, like an obligatory number of Hail Marys after a long-postponed trip to confessional. It was, so it would appear, a genuine conversion, a revelation. Gran Torino stands as further proof of it, and further refinement of it. The film, almost needless to add, is shot in that stately style of Eastwood’s which can seem so detached when the material is not so good, namely Changeling, and which can seem so assured when the material is better. More needful to add, he brings it in at well under his accustomed two and a quarter hours, temperately under two.