Reading some of the reviews around the time of Gran Torino‘s release in the UK earlier this year, it seemed that one of the few criticisms aimed in the film’s direction was that this was Clint Eastwood making a film for Clint Eastwood fans. I always had a bit of a problem with that. Firstly, I don’t think it’s true, although clearly Eastwood devotees are going to get an awful lot out of it. And secondly, is that actually a bad thing? I’m not utterly convinced that it is.
What Gran Torino is, however, is a film that surely would struggle to have been made quite so well by anyone else, both in front of and behind the camera. I’ve long been a big fan of Clint Eastwood the director, with the likes of Million Dollar Baby, Unforgiven, A Perfect World, White Hunter Black Heart and Letters From Iwo Jima in the past 20 years alone giving him a body of work to rival virtually any other working American director. He came to Gran Torino straight off the back of Changeling (a film I thought deserved better press than it got, in spite of its flabby final act), and his measured, diligent and unflashy style serves the picture exceptionally well.
But it’s in front of the camera, in what is supposedly going to be the great man’s last acting role, that he steals every scene the majestic creation that is Walt Kowalski is let near. Kowalski is, basically, a bitter and twisted racist old man, who spends pretty much the first 20 minutes of the film growling. Literally. Director Eastwood quickly makes Kowalski a figure of fun of sorts for the audience, which basically allows the character to spit out lines that other actors would run a country mile from. Kowalski hates his Hmong neighbours, hates the gangs, and hates his two dimensional, money-grabbing family. And he’s not shy about letting everyone know.
Eastwood gives an outstanding central performance, frequently very funny, from a man utterly in control of what he’s doing. If this really is his last acting role, then heck, we’re going to miss him.
Around Eastwood is primarily a cast of unknowns, but there are a good few standouts. Christopher Carley is on the receiving end of plenty of Walt’s barbs as Father Janovich, and Ahney Her as Sue, the daughter of his Hmong neighbours, gradually grows in confidence into her role. John Carroll Lynch, however, as Barber Martin, is quite brilliant, not least in the scene where he and Walt attempt to teach Sue’s brother, Thao, how to talk like a man.
The conventional story structure means that the film has few narrative surprises to it, but Gran Torino is more about the characters. The slow redemption of Walt is both believable and gripping, and you won’t even begrudge Mr Eastwood lending his gravely tones to the title track as the credits start to role. For me thus far, it’s my film of the year.
Sadly, nobody really went to town with the Blu-ray release, with the smattering of extras likely to be equally at home on a press disc. The Eastwood Way, the best of them, is a gentle, 19 minute documentary that looks at how Clint goes about making his film, with enthusiastic talking heads willing to pat him on the back. I doubt there’s actually anything contentious to say about the man, to be fair, but I’d have taken a 15 minute interview on acting the role over this. It’s still a strong little featurette, however, and the best extra you’ll find on the disc.
The others feature the cast and crew talking about their first car, and a brief piece where car owners talk about the appeal of owning and maintaining classic cars. They are, sadly, really quite forgettable.
It leaves you crying out for some kind of commentary, but on this release at least, you’re not going to get it.
The Blu-ray presentation is sound, although inevitably it’s not the most showy of films. Still, it’s hard to fault the subtle surround sound mix, nor the sharp, steady picture quality, which ripples with detail.
Yet, it’s the film that’s the star here, and while others loudly shout about their projects, Eastwood quietly gets on with the job, delivering film as impressive. Long may he continue to do so, and with his next film, Invictus, already shot, one of America’s finest living directors is simply showing many others how things should be done.
The Film:The Disc:
Gran Torino is available on Blu-ray now.