The rumour that was circling around the production of Clint Eastwood’s latest, Gran Torino, was that he would be reprising the role of Dirty Harry in the film for one last outing. And while that was quickly and correctly denied, you can’t help but see traces of Harry Callahan in the end result. It’s effectively what happened when some of the characters Clint played in the 1970s got old.
Eastwood, in what he claims to be his final acting performance, has managed to pick himself a role that he fits like a perfectly tailored glove. Bluntly, you can’t think of a leaner, more convincing actor who could snarl and growl their way around the screen as Eastwood quite literally does for a good proportion of Gran Torino’s running time.
He plays Walt Kowalski, a 50-year veteran of the Ford factory and a war veteran who we first meet at the funeral of his wife. It doesn’t take long to realise that all is not well. Walt’s dialogue is sparing, but the menace and bile underneath the surface is clear. And as he, with barely a word uttered, gets across his displeasure with his family in no uncertain terms, you quickly appreciate that you’re settling in for what turns out to be one last great turn from the man. The way he dismisses the earnest help of Father Janovich, played by Christopher Carley, is as brutal as it is hilarious, and is a running constant throughout most of the movie.
If his displeasure with his family is soon obvious, it doesn’t take long for his unhappiness with his neighbours to kick in, either. As the last American on a street where the homes have gradually been bought up by immigrants, Kowalski is a cauldron of hated, racism and bile. The script pulls little punches in the language it puts into Eastwood’s mouth, but Clint the actor spits out the words in quite an interesting way. He could, after all, play Kowalski as a straight-out man of nastiness, but there’s an edge of self-parody in the performance that frequently makes it very, very funny. Granted, that sounds like an odd statement, but you simply never take what Kowalski is saying with credence, and Eastwood damn well knows it.
As the film progresses, Kowalski finds himself very slowly and very gradually drawn into the world of his immediate neighbours, primarily through his conversations with Sue, their teenage daughter. It’s not an easy relationship between the pair, and it’s simmering with distrust on Kowalski’s part, but eventually, he has to draw the inevitable comparison between the treatment he gets at the hands of his neighbours, and how that contrasts with that of his family.
The depiction of Kowalski’s relatives is actually the main weakness of Gran Torino. They come across as money-grabbing two-dimensional caricatures, and while there’s some necessity to that, they’re relentlessly portrayed as unsympathetic and self-obsessed. A bit more meat would have helped.
The film gradually moves from comedy to drama, as Kowalski slowly becomes a mentor of sorts to Sue’s brother, Thao. And he also has to contend with the less savoury faces who are looking to turn Thao towards an equally unsavoury life. Inevitably, this forces Kowalski to face a conundrum or two that the film explores exceptionally well. And with good performances from the youngsters in the cast, it’s a film with a good few faces to watch in it.
But this is Eastwood’s show, and if this is truly to be his farewell performance, then it’s one that’s going to be remembered for a long time. There are several roles that you could argue that Eastwood was born to play – William Munney in Unforgiven, The Man With No Name, Harry Callahan and even Frankie Dunnin Million Dollar Baby – and the trick to his career has been taking those roles at a point where it’s appropriate for him as an actor to do them. He’s outstanding here, and you never fail to buy either the drama or the comedy, no matter when the film occasionally stretches credence.
It’s also hard to imagine not only Gran Torino in the hands of another actor, but also another director. This reviewer has believed for some time that Eastwood is the most proficient and interesting working director in America right now, and his very lean, economical style serves Gran Torino perfectly well. Even by Eastwood’s standards, this is stripped down to the bone, and generally all the better for it.
Gran Torino is a terrific film, with just a smattering of small problems that almost seem moot in the greater context of it. On the basis of this, even if Clint the actor is packing up his greasepaint, let’s hope that Eastwood the director keeps turning out films as strong as this for some time to come.
29 January 2009