Thursday, January 1, 2009
Clint Eastwood directed and stars in a film that felt like his farewell to acting. After seeing the trailers for Gran Torino, I have waited anxiously for the release. While visiting my brother in Detroit, we found the film at the Birmingham 8 (which had a five dollar matinee). It was certainly not the closest theater to us, but the only one that was showing this film. Gran Torino was worth the drive.
Clint Eastwood's character is Walt Kowalski. A Korean War veteran with baggage from the war that he still hasn't dealt with. Following the death of Kowalski's wife, a Hmong family moves in next door. The entire neighborhood appears to have experienced a cultural shift, with Kowalski the lone holdout. Kowalski finds himself drawn into a family dispute between a promising young Laotian and his gang member cousin. The young man (Thao Vang Lor played by Bee Vang) begins a close relationship with Kowalski following a failed attempt to steal his car. Kowalski finds meaning in mentoring the young man, filling a void in his life that seems to lack flavor. Kowalski is dogged by his wife's priest, Father Janovich (Christopher Carley) who promised Kowalski's wife that he would get him into confession. The young priest appears to be no match for a grizzled old war veteran who says more with a grunt than one might be believe possible. Kowalski also finds friendship with Lor's sister Sue (Ahney Her), a bright young girl who explains Hmong culture to the politically incorrect Kowalski. The friendship puts Kowalski into a position of intervention and possibly redemption in a riveting, tear jerking climax.
This film contained more racial slurs than I think I have ever seen in a film. The slurs are contextual, showing the grim bitter closed-mind of an aging war veteran. The insensitive nature of Eastwood's character allows Kowalski to exhibit a softening gradual change in his outlook. Although Kowalski shows an inability to speak without saying something offensive, his character has a smooth quality that demonstrates a familiarity and consciousness of his words that belies the rough exterior created by the slurs. This apparent dichotomy reveals a complex character capable of endearing himself to the audience in spite of his social short-comings.
Nick Schenk adapted the screenplay from the novel he wrote with Dave Johansen. I am unfamiliar with Schenk's background, but believe he may very well be a Detroit native. If not, he sure could have convinced me. The film does not state exactly where in Detroit this film takes place, listing Kowalski's address as a Detroit address on some medical documents. However, the Hmong gang members live at a Highland Park address as evidenced by the patrol cars in scenes at that location. Considering Kowalski claims his Polish ancestry and the proximity of Highland Park to Hamtramck along with the location of a Ford Plant in that area (where Kowalski worked for thirty years) I figured that Kowalski may very well have lived in Hamtramck (a Polish section of Detroit). This knowledge shows a very strong Detroit background in the writing. The Detroit references are strewn throughout the script lending believability as well as a sense of familiarity with the area. Having been able to screen this film in nearby Birmingham (and having grown up just a few miles from Hamtramck and Highland Park) I felt a strong connection to this film.
What Schenk accomplished in this screenplay was amazing. He brought back the gritty Clint Eastwood of the Dirty Harry films and placed him in a role where that inner fortitude and propensity towards memorable one-liners provided Eastwood's character the ability to shine. The plot required an actor that could sell the grittiness in spite of his age (in order to have served in the Korean War, the character had to be in his seventies). The character was not only believable, but complex, likable and carefully constructed. Kowalski's background plays heavily into his actions. The gradual introduction of pieces of that history were well placed rather than force fed. Schenk allowed the story to tell itself, unfolding at a natural pace rather than trying to cram background in through a more rigid story telling technique. The characters were interesting and engaging providing the audience with a fresh perspective on cultural issues as well as internalized issues. The dialogue was classic Clint Eastwood, with great lines like "every once in a while you meet a guy you realize you shouldn't have messed with....that guy is me."
Read More About Gran Torino