Gran Torino

| 11 Nov 2014 | 02:14

    Gran Torino

    Directed by Clint Eastwood

    Running Time:

    Archie Bunker, the archetypal white American working-class bigot, never dies. He’s revived when Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino plays Walt Kowalski, a cantankerous retiree still living in a Detroit ghetto, glowering at his Third World–immigrant neighbors and literally growling at his distant, “spoiled rotten” hip-hop-influenced offspring. Walt’s old values are represented by his well-kept 1972 Ford Gran Torino; he polishes it with masturbatory ardor—just as director Eastwood buffs old Western, Samurai and vigilante film clichés.

    To insist that Eastwood’s trite, B-movie storytelling is classical requires an excessive regard for junk. Gran Torino is a calculated throwback to All in the Family’s topicality, plus a comic/tragic star vehicle for Eastwood to show off his late-career legend as a serious actor-auteur. Priding himself on being an All-American icon, he claims Bunker-like characteristics merely to debunk them for a sappy exhibition of the nation’s core brotherhood values. We know Eastwood doesn’t mean it when Walt calls people “dago,” “swamp-rats,” “spook,” “sissy,” “polack,” “ofay,” “mick” or “half-Jew” because Walt’s change-of-heart (mentoring the Asian kid next door, defying local gangbangers and respecting the parish priest) is entirely predictable.

    This is pitiful, nostalgic fun for Dirty Harry fanatics (when Walt talks to himself, he’s really addressing/flattering prejudices common to Blue and Red states). Yet it lacks the political edge that made the Dirty Harry movies provocative. Since then, hip-hop and Quentin Tarantino have complicated racial identification, while Neil Jordan’s The Brave One importantly examined urban anxieties at the heart of vigilante movies and transcended genre expectations. But Gran Torino panders to convenient sentimentality, leaving audiences no wiser about life, death, civilization or justice. It’s a feel-good version of Barack Obama’s race speech: Walt represents “the complexities of race in this country that we’ve never really worked through—a part of our union that we have yet to perfect.” So it’s gruesome to see Eastwood manipulate that tension for laughs, titillation and schmaltz. Anyone who fails to question Eastwood’s misjudgment—or thinks his sentimentality is helpful—hinders their own political progress.

    Gran Torino’s only truth is a half-truth. Filmed in Detroit, the street locations (neighborhoods with vacant lots, homes near busy highways) capture genuine Midwestern blight—what Curtis Hanson missed in 8 Mile. The locales are authentic, but the characters are bogus. It’s not neo-realism, it’s neo-fake.