Thursday, February 19, 2009

Gran Torino Is A Western Set in 2008 Detroit

The wife and I recently watched Gran Torino. It's a great movie, alternatively funny, sad, suspenseful, and poignant. Eastwood's film-making style is simple, very reminescent of John Ford's. Put someone in the frame, let them act, and move on.

Thematically, though, Eastwood has over the last 20 years managed to explore important issues without being heavy-handed. And he does so in GT to perfection. Here, Clint Eastwood is playing...Clint Eastwood. Or more appropriately, Clint Eastwood is playing "Clint Eastwood," the man that the audience thinks he is in real life: tough, sometimes mean, uncompromising, outspoken. But his films of the last 20years and perhaps going all the way back to The Outlaw Josey Wales tell a different story of the man. If you've been paying attention, you would have realized that Clint Eastwood is not Dirty Harry. He is not an advocate of violence. He's not interested in making political statements, for one wing or the other. He's more interested in having a discussion.

The people who've realized this are the ones enjoying the films he's more lately produced. The people who have not, the ones that see him as the caricature that Dirty Harry became over the years, are the ones not enjoying the films he's made recently.

Gran Torino could just be his swan song as an actor. And it would be a marvelous way to end that part of his career, the perfect way to, in his typical fashion, make a statement without making a statement.

Ostensibly, the plot summary reads like just another "mismatched couple that learns a lot from each other" story. Or, Finding Forrester with guns. Clint plays a racist Korean War vet who becomes neighbors with a Hmong family next door. He befriends the family and develops close relationships with the two children especially. As John Wayne did for Ron Howard in The Shootist, Clint teaches the teenaged boy how to be a man and about how to survive in the world.

Despite the obviously low budget and unseasoned actors, the film works very well as a contemplation on life and death, and everything in between. Eastwood, as is his way, shows us just how much the younger generation doesn't "get it," but also makes sure to show us just how much the older generation doesn't get it either.

What struck me most when the credits rolled was the realization that I had just seen a Western. The neighborhood that has "turned" is just another imagining of the frontier that Eastwood rode through in all his Westerns--untamed, dangerous, and violent. The police, the only representation of government in this story, are of little consequence at all--the only assistance they are able to provide is at the crime scene, after everything has happened. Women need to be escorted anywhere they go, and their escorts need to be strong, tough characters, or else they are in serious danger. And more often than not, the only way to end a confrontation is by threatening to use a gun. Or by using it.

But Eastwood's universe is never that simple, as the ending, which I won't give away, reveals. Yes, it's a Western set in 2008 Detroit. But it's also so much more. As Eastwood himself has said, the Western is one of the uniquely American art forms, one of the very few. It is only right that the Western, therefore, be used to explore what is the American experience. And that's what Gran Torino is also about--growing up in America and growing old in America.

I recommend it to all with this caveat: don't go in expecting to see Dirty Harry. Because that's not who Clint Eastwood really is.

8 comments:

Rita Vetere said...

Hi, Brian,
I enjoyed Gran Torino, mostly for the same reasons you did, and yes, I'm a fan of Clint's and have been since Fistful of Dollars. Didn't enjoy his Dirty Harry movies all that much, but have liked almost all the movies he's directed and starred in in the past ten or fifteen years, especially Absolute Power, which I thought was a gem. As you say, Gran Torino would be a fitting swan song--understated but powerful, like the characters he's portrayed over the years.

Brian O'Rourke said...

Rita,

Absolute Power is one that slipped past me, but now I've gotta check it out.

I think my favorite Eastwood movie is Unforgiven, and I've definitely enjoyed nearly all his work. Where Eagles Dare is also one of the best WWII action/spy flicks I've ever seen.

adrian mckinty said...

Brian

You didnt happen to catch Peter and my extensive discussion of Where Eagles Dare did you - believe me its somewhere in there and I think its clear by the end that I'm right.

Best modern western? Paris - Texas - guy rides into, stirs everything up, sets the world to rights, sacrifices his own happiness, rides out of town.

marco said...

Of course for us in Italy Gran Torino means something totally different:
Torino F.C. -scroll down to Il Grande Torino and Superga air disaster.

Brian O'Rourke said...

Adrian -

Is that the discussion about the working helicopters in WWII? If so, I did, and I too previously suffered from the delusion that there weren't any in existence back then.

Never heard of Paris, Texas, but now I've gotta check it out.

You might be jealous of me this weekend: the wife has class tonight and all day tomorrow so I'll be catching up on Battlestar Galactica.

Brian O'Rourke said...

marco -

Wow, never heard about that one. Very sad.

Are you a fan of Torino F.C. today? Or is there another team in Italy you follow?

marco said...

I am actually, which is rare outside Turin and the Piedmont Region- Torino has rarely fought for the championship after the tragedy- a national title 1975-76, a few top finishes, but most of time it was squarely middle of the table while in recent years mainly fights to avoid relegation.
But my father was a supporter and even fathers can't be wrong all the time, right?
I also follow the Tuscan teams, Fiorentina and Livorno in particular.


v-word: words

Brian O'Rourke said...

marco -

I'm being bombarded with recommendations to watch soccer, er...football. First John McFettridge and now you too!