Holy shit, I think I knew this before, but Clint Eastwood is the greatest movie star of all time. How is it possible that a guy who 40 years ago starred in some of the best westerns ever, and 30 years ago starred in some of the best cop movies ever, and 15 years ago directed and starred in the (deserving) winner of the best picture Oscar (another one of the best westerns ever), and in this decade is still going strong as a unique and sometimes great director of serious movies, and yet ALSO chose to direct and star in this humble little slice of moving dramedy with a side of good old fashioned ass kicking? Answer: it is not possible. But Clint doesn’t believe in impossible so he did those things anyway. Also he was mayor once. And plays piano. And sang the theme song for this one.
I think probaly most people want Clint to keep doing those Oscar bait movies. I liked MILLION DOLLAR BABY (another best picture, not even the one I referred to before) and I get why people like MYSTIC RIVER, and I thought LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA was great. But as good of a director as he is I think Clint Eastwood the movie star is an even more valuable treasure to the world, so I’m happy he’s still willing to throw us one of these. The older and gruffer he gets the cooler he gets, so he should stay on camera.
It’s amazing to think that Clint’s old-man-looking-back phase has been able to last 15 years already, starting with UNFORGIVEN and including IN THE LINE OF FIRE and BLOODWORK. And this one might be his most direct old man statement. This movie is entirely about him being a grumpy old bastard grimacing at the state of the world and trying to write the last chapter of his life, possibly with twist ending. He actually says “Get off my lawn” in this movie, and not to be funny.
Clint plays Walt Kowalski, an old grouch who we first meet at his wife’s funeral. He and everyone in attendance seem casual and accepting of the death, but Walt is pretty disgusted by his sons and the way they let their kids dress and behave. He makes no attempt to hide the loathing on his face as he sees his granddaughter’s bellybutton ring or watches her text somebody during the service. There’s alot of humor in just watching how he reacts to the world around him, especially since he literally growls like a bulldog when he sees things he doesn’t like. He can be so negative he even causes a priest to say “Jesus Christ!” This is a guy I can relate to.
But I must acknowledge that Walt is a huge asshole. He’s a total racist and not just because he was in Korea. He never says the N word but pretty much makes derogatory comments about all races and nationalities throughout the movie. And although the main story is about him bonding with his Hmong neighbors he never does learn to stop saying “gook.” Even when he’s trying to be nice he talks about their “good gook food.”
This movie is not for everybody, and it’s not quite what I expected. But man, I loved it. I don’t want to say too many details, because it’s a small story you just need to watch unfold. But basically it’s about circumstances causing him to spend time with the two teenage kids in the immigrant family next door. Although “racist Korean vet bonds with immigrant neighbor” sounds pretty high concept, the whole thing feels very believable to me. He’s in this period of change where his wife is gone, he’s alone for the first time, he’s pretty much the only white person left living in the old neighborhood, and he’s pissed off at his family. He’s basically alone drinking beer on his porch when this teenage girl invites him to a barbecue. Of course he doesn’t want to but then on a whim does it anyway. It makes sense that at this point in his life he might say “Shit, why not try something I never would’ve done before?” And it changes everything.
Also it leads to strange situations such as 78 year old Clint Eastwood in a basement full of Asian teenagers, drinking a beer and trying not to be awkward. Then he notices the dryer is wobbly and fixes it.
It’s a weird take on racism that’s sort of reminiscent of DIRTY HARRY. Like in that one he’s an equal opportunity hater. And we start to see that his hateful words don’t mean that much to him when we learn he has friends that he communicates with purely through insults. The neighbor kids, Thao and Sue, gain his respect by talking shit to his face. That’s another reason to take a grain of salt with all those drummed up quotes of Clint and Spike Lee insulting each other back and forth.
Thao’s family thinks he’s a sissy and makes fun of him for doing women’s work (gardening), and Walt definitely agrees. But he teaches him to be manly not through violence, but through fixing things. He even loans him tools. He tries to mold Thao into the useful person he thinks his grandchildren are not.
That’s how it avoids being some kind of BOYZ N THE HOOD “hey kids, stay out of gangs” type of movie even while the threat looms of Thao’s gangster cousin trying to influence him. The movie handles it just right, introducing the gang so you root for them at first because they save Thao from some other assholes. They affectionately call him “dog” and beg for his company and you can see how it would be tempting. He’s smart enough to turn them down, but it’s the relationship he has with Walt later on that gives him a better path to go down. They learn from each other.
But trust me, this is not CRASH. You could definitely say that Walt learns a lesson about racism judging by the crazy/noble choices he makes to help these people he still calls “swamp rats,” but I don’t think it’s really specifically about that. It’s just about him finding a little redemption as a human being by finding somebody he can do a good deed for. He’s still an asshole but he could’ve spent his last years by himself hating everybody, instead he broadened his horizons a little, made some friends and (thankfully, for our sake) got to kick in a few faces for the greater good.
Some people might think it condones a little racism, since it treats his ranting as almost a cute character quirk. Other people might think it’s great because he’s “politically incorrect” which is automatically worthwhile and what about the first amendment, why won’t you liberals let me watch Song of the South, etc.
But I think either of those views would be too simplistic. Walt is a good character because he’s not quite either one of those. I think the BAD SANTA theory is in effect here – not having him completely cured of his assholeness makes the gesture seem much more sincere. I would like if he stopped calling Asians names, but if the choice was between that and making a deep connection with an Asian family and helping them out, I think he chose the better one. Besides, like I said this is not CRASH, you can’t be magically cured of racism by falling on your ass. It would not be believable for him to be cured without some serious retraining by Paul Winfield’s character from WHITE DOG.
The one and only thing holding the movie back for me is some stiff acting on the part of the first-time actors playing the neighbor kids, Thao and Sue. Mostly I don’t mind, but there are a couple scenes that could’ve been much more powerful if they were more natural – one where Sue tells off some dudes who are harassing her (it doesn’t seem like the quips are really coming from her) and at least one really emotional yelling scene with Thao. I would honestly take these weak performances over having slick Hollywood actors in the parts, but of course the best would be more natural performances by rookies. The gang members and thugs in the movie are all non-actors too but they do a much better job.
Maybe the weirdest choice in the movie is to end with a song actually sung by Clint… in character. Can’t say I’ve seen that before, or that I understand why, but it works for me.
I read that GRAN TORINO was a script by an unknown writer. He shopped it around and all the studios rejected it, but when Clint read it he liked it and shot it as-is. Apparently other than changing the setting to Detroit Clint “didn’t change a word.” That’s weird because it seems so much like a script tailored just for him. You can almost imagine it rewritten as a last Dirty Harry movie (except Harry wouldn’t have grandkids). It has some great tough guy moments, it has his sense of humor and most of all it has his deceptive simplicity. It seems so minimalistic but there’s complexity hidden beneath the surface. There’s alot going on with his character that he doesn’t come out and say, or if he does he says it in very few words.
In a way it was a relief to read that Clint didn’t develop the script himself, because the story has such a preparing-for-death theme to it that it makes me worry about how many more Clint Eastwood movies we will be able to get. We don’t want to be too greedy. But if it’s okay with you God I think a 300 year old Clint Eastwood would be worth considering. Whatever happens I am thankful for all the great movies Clint has been able to do, and I hope other people will enjoy this one as much as I did.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.