Gran Torino: The Pinnacle of Overrating Clint Eastwood in the 21st Century
Before I get into the film itself, I think it’s important to note that I have not bowed at the altar of Clint Eastwood’s streak of successful films over the past few years. His direction is ALWAYS classically styled– lots of shadow, terrific lighting, and the framing and camera movement are always stellar. However, his script selection has been less than praiseworthy. Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, and Changeling all have serious script issues– either lousy endings, one-dimensional characters, stilted dialogue, or some combination of the three.
For Gran Torino to have been a successful film, it would’ve taken Clint’s best direction to date, since it’s definitely the worst script he’s ever been dealt. It’s not simply one-dimensional– it’s borderline racist in its depiction of minority gangbangers, and in its way that Clint’s character’s racial slurs are used as hilarious punchlines after a while. Clint Eastwood is racist! Ha, ha… ha? Clint growls and mugs his way through a lot of this, and it’s an admirable effort, but his supporting cast is terrible, and the entire affair sinks under the weight of the leaden script.
The plot is about an angry old man named Walt Kowalski. You can tell he’s angry because he grits his teeth when he speaks. His wife just died, and now he’s on his own living in his neighborhood, which has turned into an Asian ghetto over the years. A local Catholic reverend tries to get Walt to confess his sins, but much like in Million Dollar Baby, Walt mocks the young pastor, a surefire sign that Walt will confess right before the final showdown. His Asian neighbors have two young children, Thao (who Walt calls “Toad”… hilarious!) and Sue, who have been having trouble with Asian gangsters including Thao’s cousin. These gangsters are mean… they drive slowly, flash uzis, and say things like, “What up, little cuz? You down wit us or what?” Villains with developed character aren’t important to this film. So while Walt drinks beer and calls his neighbors “gooks,” “slopes,” and “zipperheads,” we know that he will save Thao from the gangsters and be more than just a grumpy old man by the end of the film.
Clint has never been a GREAT actor, he’s been a great personality. So while he does okay with some of the grumpy moments, several scenes of his dialogue sound awkward (I felt the same about Clint in Million Dollar Baby… maybe he just can’t handle bad dialogue well). I’m STUNNED at the amount of Oscar buzz he’s getting… is this a joke? Do people just love seeing an icon like Clint say as many racial slurs as he can in a growly voice? Clint is a charming personality, but people can’t really think he’s that charming… can they? Maybe it’s because he’s so far above the level of the rest of the actors in the film, none of whom are worth mentioning. The two Asian kids are first-time actors, and while they try, it takes a certain level of talent to try to fill out such poorly constructed characters, and these kids don’t have it. When Thao is locked by Walt in the basement as Walt heads to the final showdown, he slams his hands against the door yelling, “WALT! WALT! WALT!”… it’s one of the most unintentionally funny scenes of the year.
That’s the shame about Gran Torino. The direction is actually quite good. The cinematography and lighting, as always in a Clint film, are stellar. There’s an interesting story hidden beneath the bad dialogue. Watching Clint act Archie Bunkeresque has its charm in places. But we don’t learn anything as a result of Clint’s racism– that would require a smart script that doesn’t use the word “zipperhead” as a punchline. Clint strains under the weight of carrying such a poor screenplay, and yet he still wins Best Actor from the National Board of Review. I thought the nominations for Mystic River were a stretch. I thought the win for Million Dollar Baby was a shame, but since I loved Hilary Swank’s performance so much, I excused it. Now, this year, Clint has hit a new low and still gets rewarded. Why does he pick these projects? Because they continue to use his theme of one person feeling excluded from the rest of the world? Because they all allow him to use his trademark shadowy lighting? Or because he knows that regardless of what he does, the critics will still worship the ground he walks on? Is Gran Torino a test to see just how much he can get away with? Watching filmmakers with genuine ambition and stories to tell (like Charlie Kaufman, Spike Lee, and countless others) get tossed aside during awards season so that Clint Eastwood’s flicks can take their usual spot was frustrating in years past… but this year, it’s elevated to preposterous.