By MANOHLA DARGIS
Published: December 12, 2008 from today’s NEW YORK TIMES
Twice in the last decade, just as the holiday movie season has begun to sag under the weight of its own bloat, full of noise and nonsense signifying nothing, Clint Eastwood has slipped another film into theaters and shown everyone how it’s done. This year’s model is “Gran Torino,” a sleek, muscle car of a movie Made in the U.S.A., in that industrial graveyard called Detroit. I’m not sure how he does it, but I don’t want him to stop. Not because every film is great — though, damn, many are — but because even the misfires show an urgent engagement with the tougher, messier, bigger questions of American life.
Few Americans make movies about this country anymore, other than Mr. Eastwood, a man whose vitality as an artist shows no signs of waning, even in a nominally modest effort like “Gran Torino.” Part of this may be generational: Mr. Eastwood started as an actor in the old studio system, back when the major movie companies were still in the business of American life rather than just international properties. Hollywood made movies for export then, of course, but part of what it exported was an idea of America as a democratic ideal, an idea of greatness which, however blinkered and false and occasionally freighted with pessimism, was persuasive simply because Gene Kelly and John Wayne were persuasive.
While it’s easy to understand why the last eight years (or the last 50) have made it difficult to sell that idea to the world or even the country, it’s dispiriting that so many movies are disconnected from everyday experience, from economic worries to race. Pauline Kael used to beat up on Stanley Kramer, the director of earnest middlebrow entertainments like “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” but at least these movies had a connection to real life or an idea about it. Ms. Kael also famously branded Don Siegel’s “Dirty Harry” as “deeply immoral,” even fascistic, but the film became a classic because of its ambiguous engagement with American violence and masculinity. Mr. Eastwood and a .44 Magnum did their bit too.
Dirty Harry is back, in a way, in “Gran Torino,” not as a character but as a ghostly presence. He hovers in the film, in its themes and high-caliber imagery, and of course most obviously in Mr. Eastwood’s face. It is a monumental face now, so puckered and pleated that it no longer looks merely weathered, as it has for decades, but seems closer to petrified wood. Words like flinty and steely come to mind, adjectives that Mr. Eastwood, in his performance as Walt Kowalski, expressively embodies with his usual lack of fuss and a number of growls. A former auto worker at Ford, Walt has just put his longtime wife in the ground when the story opens. From his scowl, it looks as if he would like to join her.
Instead he sits on his front porch chugging can after can of cheap beer in the company of his yellow Labrador, Daisy, watching the world at a safe distance with a squint and a stream of bitter commentary. Kept at bay, the remaining members of his family — including two sons with big houses, big cars, big waistlines — have no choice but to let him stew alone. Yet the rest of the world refuses to leave Walt be, despite his best efforts and grimace. The world first creeps into his peripheral vision, where a family of Hmong immigrants live in the rundown house next door; and then, through a series of unfortunate events, some artful and others creaking with scripted contrivance, it stages a life-altering home invasion.
Written by a newcomer, Nick Schenk, the story eases into gear with an act of desperation.Under violent threat from some Hmong gangbangers, the next-door neighbor’s teenage son, Thao (Bee Vang), tries and fails to steal Walt’s cherry 1972 Gran Torino, and in the bargain nearly loses his life to its angry, armed owner. Thao’s family, led by his mouthy, friendly sister, Sue (a very good Ahney Her), forces the teenager to do penance by working for Walt, an arrangement that pleases neither the man nor the boy. No one seems a more unlikely (or reluctant) father surrogate than Walt, a foulmouthed bigot with an unprintable epithet for every imaginable racial and ethnic group. Growling — often literally, “Grr, grr” — he resists the family’s overtures like a man under siege, walled in by years of suspicion, prejudice and habit.
Walt assumes his protector role gradually, a transformation that at first plays in an often broadly comic key. Mr. Eastwood’s loose, at times very funny performance in the early part of the film is one of its great pleasures. While some of this enjoyment can be likened to spending time with an old friend, Mr. Eastwood is also an adept director of his own performances and, perhaps more important, a canny manipulator of his own iconographic presence. He knows that when we’re looking at him, we’re also seeing Dirty Harry and the Man With No Name and all his other outlaws and avenging angels who have roamed across the screen for the last half-century. All these are embedded in his every furrow and gesture.
These spectral figures, totems of masculinity and mementos from a heroic cinematic age, are what make this unassuming film — small in scale if not in the scope of its ideas — more than just a vendetta flick or an entertainment about a crazy coot and the exotic strangers next door. As the story unfolds and the gangbangers return and Walt reaches for his gun, the film moves from comedy into drama and then tragedy and then into something completely unexpected. We’ve seen this western before, though not quite. Because this isn’t John Wayne near the end of the 20th century, but Clint Eastwood at the start of the still-new 21st, remaking the image of the hero for one more and perhaps final time, one generation of Americans making way for the next.
That probably sounds heavier than I mean, but “Gran Torino” doesn’t go down lightly. Despite all the jokes — the scenes of Walt lighting up at female flattery and scrambling for Hmong delicacies — the film has the feel of a requiem. Melancholy is etched in every long shot of Detroit’s decimated, emptied streets and in the faces of those who remain to still walk in them. Made in the 1960s and ’70s, the Gran Torino was never a great symbol of American automotive might, which makes Walt’s love for the car more poignant. It was made by an industry that now barely makes cars, in a city that hardly works, in a country that too often has felt recently as if it can’t do anything right anymore except, every so often, make a movie like this one.