Art of steel 

Eastwood at his best in Gran Torino

So I’m driving to see Gran Torino this past weekend and out of the radio comes Bob Dylan singing “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” a dirge sung from the perspective of a dying lawman who entreats his mother to “put these guns in the ground/I can’t shoot them anymore.” It seemed fitting, as I wasn’t all that excited about the movie. Early buzz had it pegged as the final installment of the Dirty Harry series, and the trailer clip showcasing a grizzly close-up of Clint Eastwood spitting the words “Get off my lawn!” down the barrel of a rifle pointed at a gang of punks seemed to authenticate that rumor.

Not that there’s anything wrong with Dirty Harry, mind you. There’s an art to steel balls finely wrought, and over the years Eastwood has proven his balls to be steelier, and wrought more finely, than most. But really, does the world (cinematic or otherwise) need a 78-year-old tough guy coining new catch phrases on his way to checking off tasks (“1. Intimidate Asian punks with M1 rifle and racial epithets”) on some sort of Badass Bucket List?

The answer, I’m happy to report, is a big fat yes.

Gran Torino is not only not a cheap Dirty Harry swan song, it just may be the finest achievement in Eastwood’s illustrious career. And while it’s obviously way early to speculate about these sorts of things, it’s hard to imagine a better movie coming out in 2009.

Eastwood plays widower Walt Kowalski, a retired autoworker and Korean War veteran trying to hold on to some sense of decorum as his neighborhood—and his life—crumbles around him. Kowalski is beyond cantankerous and woefully racist, and when a large Hmong family moves into the house next door it appears as if he’ll play out his waning years in a ball of hate and disgust.

Eastwood’s performance, both as actor and director, is brilliant from the get-go. The opening scene is set at the funeral for Kowalski’s wife, and the growling snarl we see on his face as his granddaughter arrives with a bared, pierced midriff immediately sets the hateful tone. As Kowalski moves through his mourning period by casting epithets with wanton abandon (zipperhead, spook, swamp rat, gook, etc.)—and not just under his breath, mind you, but directed unabashedly at their recipients—he becomes unquestionably loathsome and unlikable. Eastwood has never been one to toe the line of political correctness, but this time he goes to an extreme.

As the plot advances by sucking Kowalski slowly into the lives of his Hmong neighbors, though, the genius of positioning his unapologetic early racism becomes clear. He never really backs off the hurtful monikers, but Eastwood shades his delivery in such a sublime manner that the words are transformed into endearments, made all the stronger by their dark origins. So when Kowalski cracks a line like “Jesus, Joseph and Mary, these Hmong broads are like badgers” after a particularly stout demonstration of the neighbor women’s willpower, it comes off as not only funny as hell but also a deep and genuine expression of well-earned admiration.

Eastwood and his casting director discovered a serious lack of Hmong actors in the ranks of the Screen Actors Guild, so they mined Hmong communities in strongholds like Fresno, Calif., St. Paul, Minn., and Warren, Mich., for would-be actors. The result is stunning, as the performances are fantastic despite only one of the main players having any sort of acting background.

First-time screenwriter Nick Shenck penned the script, though if there’s any water behind his ears it’s hardly evident. Some of the plot mechanisms seem a bit too easy as they play out—a lesson about Hmong culture given to Kowalski by one of the young women, for example, or the scene in which Kowalski teaches a Hmong youth to “man up” by embracing bravado insults himself—but in each of these instances the subsequent scenes pay off so well that any artifice is quickly forgotten.

It’s interesting to note that Gran Torino is the first major film to take advantage of a new incentive program in Michigan designed to attract filmmakers. The car of the title remains an icon throughout the movie, but it may be that this flick is the best thing to come out of our nation’s automobile manufacturing center in quite some time.

Thinking back on the expectations I had of this movie, framed by Dylan’s lyrics, I realize that the irony now lies in how prominently the sentiment expressed in the song plays out in Gran Torino’s masterful finale. I suspect Dirty Harry wouldn’t be a fan of the ending, but it absolutely blew me away. And you can count me as one punk who feels mighty lucky for it.
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