Has any Hollywood director ever been on a roll like Clint Eastwood – directing an unbroken record of critical and commercial hits that has stretched to six years without a blemish?
Since Mystic River in 2003, the man from Malpaso has entertained his audience with Million Dollar Baby, Flags of Our Fathers, Letters from Iwo Jima and – what could be as good as them all, Gran Torino (2008). (Changeling, made before Gran Torino, is also in release).
Is this the guy people called Clunk for his wooden acting style, the cowboy who said little in all those Sergio Leone films, the vengeful detective whose “Go ahead, make my day” is one of the best-known screen lines? No, it’s the sensitive, beautifully-rounded American hero, who at least since one of the best films of the past 30 years – 1992’s Unforgiven – has been recognised as one of the world’s premier film makers.
This was Rowdy Yates from television’s Rawhide, which, apart from the Blues Brothers singing the theme song to a bunch of rednecks in the cult movie of the same name, is the only fact most people remember from that early western show.
Fifty years on and Rowdy has grown up and became Walt Kowalski, a widowed, retired motor plant worker living out his days in the old neighbourhood, today dominated by immigrant Laotian hill people displaced by the Vietnam War.
Carrying prejudices from his own Korean War combat, Walt doesn’t like this much, parcelling them together as Gooks, despite the variety of their Asian origins. However, Walt doesn’t like much at all. He doesn’t know how to love his own sons and uses racist epithets to all he meets – friend or foe – including his Italian barber and Irish construction manager, who does a favour for him.
However, his greatest disdain is probably for the Catholic church which was the pinnacle of his former wife’s life and it is clear from the opening moments that Walt is a troubled man, self sufficient and generally content with his own company.
When he thwarts an attempt to steal his gleaming, 1973 Gran Torino from his garage, it sets in course a chain of events, involving the Mhong family who live next door and most notably with the son, Thao (Bee Vang), who finds an unlikely father figure in the gruff Kowalski. The flowering of this unlikely pairing is set in train by Sue (Ahney Her), Thao’s sister, savvy to American ways and a cross-cultural ambassador between Walt, her family and the neighbourhood.
Eastwood has fashioned a beautiful film, showing one of the realities of modern life, that, in a world where many men, incapable of expressing love to their own children, find their softer side in dotage when confronted by their grand children or, in this case, a troubled youth.
Eastwood’s Walt is like Nicholson’s Melvin Udell in As Good As It Gets (1997), straight talking and to the point, no matter who gets offended. His growl is particularly impressive and, like an old dog being over patted by a toddler, he takes it for a time before disgracing himself in front of all hands by striking out.
The film should have finished with police cars surrounding a crime scene but, in his only blemish, the director sugar coats the ending with three scenes, culminating in Thao driving the Gran Torino along the shores of Lake Michigan. These could have been omitted to let his audience work out their own finale but we live in a world where even an auteur of Eastwood’s stature has to dumb some things down for a mass audience.
However, Gran Torino finishes with a haunting title song, co-written, among others, by the director and son Kyle, and this will stay with you at least till you get to your own car to drive home. Possibly longer, for Gran Torino will make you think.