Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Gran Torino (2008)


Crotchety veteran Walt Kowalski is something of a misanthrope. Alienated from his (awful) family, bitter that his formerly white Detroit neighborhood is now mostly Southeast Asian, annoyed by his Hmong neighbors, openly contemptuous of the baby-faced priest at his late wife's church, he pretty much just wants to be left alone to drink beer on the porch with his dog.  But when the local Hmong gang pressures his young neighbor into trying to steal his beloved 1972 Gran Torino, Kowalski takes matters into his own hands and ends up getting much more involved in his neighbors' lives than he intended.

This movie was pretty much amazing.  I tend to steer clear of any movie that even remotely resembles Oscar bait, on account of I don't much care for blatant emotional manipulation, nor am I fond of movies that aim to make me uncomfortable or uplifted and/or want to transform me into a sniveling mass of tears and mucus.  Although this movie was not actually nominated for an Oscar, it was widely expected to garner a number of nominations and even a win.  I was, as a result, rather skeptical.

Fortunately, this is no treacle fest. Kowalski (flawlessly portrayed by Clint Eastwood) was the perfect anti-treacle.  He swears, he drinks, he smokes, and he's always ready with a racist remark--for any race or nationality he happens to encounter. And the movie is . . . sort of fine with all that.  Yes, he experiences the downside of a life of tobacco addiction, and he learns to appreciate and even care for his Hmong neighbors.  But even as he warms up to them, racial slurs fly fast and furious from his lips--even when addressing his white friends (resulting in some very amusing exchanges).  It's just the way he talks.

He is in full Clint Eastwood mode here, as a tough Korean War vet who will be darned if he will let other people push him around. Even at 78 years old, Eastwood is totally convincing as the kind of man you do not want to mess with.  He growls, he snarls, he rumbles, and he is armed to the teeth and ready to pull the trigger--just the way we like him.  He is, quite frankly, a mean old man (with a good heart, of course) who can scare the living daylights out of anyone who is foolish enough to cross him.  Which bodes poorly for the Hmong gang members hell bent on terrorizing his neighbors.

There are a lot of complex ideas woven into this film--sacrifice, religion, salvation, guilt, the definition of masculinity, the definition of family . . . all sorts of good stuff.  However, I was particularly intrigued by the treatment of masculine pride and the desire for respect. As Kowalski and his young neighbor Thao get better acquainted, we see them do a delicate dance to preserve their pride--Kowalski does not ask for help because he is weak.  He lets Thao help him because Thao needs to learn how to be a man.  He teaches Thao how to fix things around the house because Thao is working off the 'debt' of trying to steal the car.  He doesn't give Thao tools, but lets him borrow them, or requires Thao to pay him back out of his paycheck.  Thao, who lives in a house full of women and has no real male presence in his life, apart from his gangbanger cousin, learns from Kowalski what it means to be a man and how to be proud in the best sense of the word.  Thao respects Kowalski and  honors him in a way his own children never did (partly because he was presumably not the best father).  Kowalski's terrible children disrespect him and insult his pride constantly, which only alienates him from them further.  Even the baby-faced priest originally approaches Kowalski with kindly condescension and unearned familiarity, which Kowalski roundly rejects in no uncertain terms. Only after he is willing to listen to and learn from Kowalski, address him with respect, and honor him as a man to be reckoned with does Kowalski unbend a bit and respect him in turn.

We see a twisted version of this pride and thirst for respect in Thao's cousin and his fellow gang members.  Their original idea--pressuring Thao into joining the gang--seems to have been little more than a whim.  But when they encounter resistance, they become bound and determined to 'win' at any cost, even though presumably they don't actually care whether Thao actually joins or not.  Confronted and (temporarily) bested by an old man and a physically unimpressive young teen, they are determined to save face, even if it means committing horribly disproportionate crimes against helpless victims in an effort to obtain an 'end' that neither side wants.  The resulting escalation of hostilities is tragic and nauseating, and Kowalski is forced to re-examine his general philosophy of kicking butt and taking names.

For the more sensitive viewer:  This film was rated R, largely for profanity . . . and it earned it.  There is a lot of swearing here, so if that sort of thing bugs you, you may want to steer clear or wait until it comes out on cable (though I shudder to think what the cable-safe version would look like).  To say nothing of Kowalski's unrepentant and frequent use of racial slurs.  There is violence, too, but while it is disturbing it is not graphic.  And, even more importantly, nothing bad happens to Kowalski's dog.

Bottom line:  A great movie.  Plenty of action and Clint Eastwood kicking butt to keep the male viewers happy, but plenty of relational subtlety and Life Lessons for the ladies (or anyone who's into that sort of thing).  And while I don't usually care much about what the Academy thinks (and I usually actively dislike their pet films), I have to agree that Eastwood was kind of robbed.

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