Clint Eastwood, at 80, shows no sign of slowing down. Without a doubt one of the most prolific and most respected American filmmakers alive today – he averages two films a year – we’d somehow assumed that old, shrivelled-up Dirty Harry had had his golden days and that it’s time to clear out his desk and say adieu to Hollywood. No. Instead, in the last two years, he’s produced and directed films that some of us unfortunate souls can only dream of making at least one in our entire lifespan. There was the superb Changeling, the somewhat mellow Invictus and this year’s Hereafter, films that boasts that grand, sweeping, old-school Hollywood emotional sucker-punch. It’s easy, then, to surmise that Eastwood’s increasingly becoming a sentimentalist, a big softie beneath that grizzled, rough-hewn façade. Perhaps that comes with age. Or perhaps that’s just craft and emotionality being refined.
Gran Torino, thankfully, is given a subtle emotional undertow without resulting into schmaltz. It’s a Western film without horses and saddles, an action film without gunfights, a Hollywood weepie without the three-piece hanky and a social indictment without being full-on preachy. It’s also a well-developed character-driven piece with Eastwood himself playing the central protagonist, the grey, furious, war veteran Walt Kowalski. Eastwood is a sheer galvanising presence that sums up an entire acting panoply of cowboys and cranky gunslingers. Here, he’s an old-age, grumpy pensioner at odds with the world – disgruntled with everything and everyone including seemingly harmless South-East Asian neighbours in his Detroit ‘hood, his selfish kids, obnoxious grandchildren, local gangbangers, his priest and even God – and only takes temporary relief in swigging beer in his porch and his immaculate Gran Torino. Even in his wife’s funeral at the film’s opener, he doesn’t so much mourn as growling at his disrespectful clan. It’s a rapacious, magnificent turn, with Eastwood managing to be equally menacing and sympathetic. It’s also a star quality unrivalled by any other actor his age, where his onscreen presence just overshadows everybody else in the film, which reduces the Asian kids in his block acting as plummy.
At heart, the narrative structure is reminiscent to a John Wayne Western, or even Eastwood’s own canon, where the embittered, mortally-ill hero-with-a-gun saves a bunch of folks in his land, the Southeast Asian minority a shoo-in as Indians. This issue is also given much more complication with Kowalski being portrayed as a certified racist, spewing out slurs that oozes with breathtaking offensiveness. Yet Kowalski is never reduced to neither a sour curmudgeon nor ham-fisted misanthrope. There’s humanity within. Come the unexpectedly moving finale, there’s a noble, pacifist intention behind Kowalski’s final act of resolve. It will tug hearts, and make you forget of the first-half, which resembles like a middlebrow, live-action version of Pixar’s Up with Carl Fredricksen going all Dirty Harry with a gun, raiding punks in the ‘hood.
Gran Torino isn’t astounding filmmaking, but it is a quiet, reserved and dignified one worthy of respect. If this would be Eastwood’s swansong to silverscreen acting, it’s a memorable one.