Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Some Sympathy For The White Devil


(A note to those of you who have yet to see this, this post is riddled with spoilers.)

So I finally got around to seeing Gran Torino. First, let me say that this film is first-class schmaltz. Underwritten at times, overwritten at others and heavy-handed in all the other places. I find myself gunning for Eastwood's respect as a director. His motive as of late seems to be to sneak in a movie under the radar just in time for the Oscars. And yet I don't feel he is held up as a great director. I wouldn't expect to see his name among Martin Scorsese, Francis Coppola or Steven Spielbergs'. Maybe that's just me. And maybe that's where Gran Torino failed - because the expectations were so high. And perhaps that's where the audience failed as well. Lest we forget, Clint Eastwood also directed Blood Work, Space Cowboys and The Rookie among others. That's not to say that he's necessarily a bad director, it's just to say that the guy isn't always gunning for gold every time. Or at least not gold in the form of a naked man named Oscar.

About half way through Gran Torino, I eased up a bit. I stopped trying to figure out why he made this film and just started to enjoy it. And I found it was enjoyable. It has been said that this will be Eastwood's final role. And if Eastwood wants to end his career with this film, then it seems fitting. Because it's impossible not to watch this film without referencing all his others. He has made a career out of his snarl. Out of his one-liners. And this movie is full of that. And the burden that his character Walter carries with him is not unlike the burden that Eastwood carries from all his roles. He has made a career out of being angry. Of being the man who does it his way. As Dirty Harry. Or the Man With No Name. He does it without guilt or shame. And now, as is true with all people, the man carries it with him. There's even a nod to Paint Your Wagon with Eastwood singing the final song.

There is a scene in particular that I would like to bring up. It's about three-fourths of the way through when Walter has just beat up one of the Hmong gang members. In retaliation, the gang shoots up the Hmong family house next door to Walter. In addition, they have raped the daughter, Sue. As she enters the house, bruised and bloodied, Walter is filled with rage. He stomps off, unable to provide comfort that doesn't come in the form of anger. It's natural to think that Walter's emotion is that of revenge. The film up until that point had explored Walter's newfound feelings towards the Lor family, especially towards the son Thao. But I think Walter's anger is directed at himself. If you're a parent, you know the love associated with that. A love greater than the love you share with your spouse. It's a scary love, because your children are your weakness. If you give yourself to them, there's a lot at risk. And risk like that is terrifying. This is what Walter feels at this moment. A love that he probably has never felt before. Not for his wife and certainly not for his children or their children. And he's angry because of that. I found this scene very touching because I have never experienced a scene that captured these feelings so well. And while Walter always seemed to have broken sentences to explain himself throughout the film, I was pleased to see that he was speechless for these few moments. And it was during these moments that I was reminded of how good a director Clint Eastwood can be.

At the end of the film, Walter has one final confrontation with the Hmong gang. He speaks to them with a snarl, but his mission is that of compassion. And it's fitting that he goes out in a blaze of glory - attempting to light a cigarette no less. It's as if to say to everyone in Hollywood, I've retired this jersey. Place it on a wall somewhere and no one better even fucking try to wear it ever again.

11 comments:

Ray said...

Yet another review that reviews the circumstances around the movie, rather than the movie itself.

Say what you want about existential meanings and whatnot ... the acting is mostly terrible, the script is nearly 100% terrible, and the direction is pedestrian movie-of-the-week territory. The priest character and every one of his scenes are written so sloppily and shoehorned into the script that it made me want to laugh out loud. The forced "understanding our differences" crap with the Asian family ... the climactic buildup to nothing at the end ... the film is a mess.

Worst of all is Eastwood, who growls and scowls his way through this like he's doing an SNL impression of his previous roles. Awful ... the character has no weight at all ... a troubled past is alluded to, yet it feels tacked on, like an afterthought. This is basically William Munny from UNFORGIVEN without the charm, depth, or backstory.

And I thought MILLION DOLLAR BABY was overrated...

Jason Bellamy said...

Nice job with this. I like the way you sort out your feelings.

I'm pretty much argued out on "Gran Torino" as a whole, but in response to some specific points:

* I'm a little confused by your great/not-great argument about Eastwood. He isn't "held up as a great director" and thus expectations were too high? In any case, I think Eastwood is an average director at best who has been overly praised in part because everyone in the business loves him, and in part because very few critics bare their teeth for an aged director the way they do for a guy in his 30s. I think it's worth noting that many critics take down Tyler Perry's films for some of the very same flaws that could be thrown at "Gran Torino."

* I love your reading of Walt's reaction late in the film. If it played that way to you, then that's the way it played, so I don't want to argue your reaction to it. That said, I'm doubtful. When in every other instance Walt demonstrates the need to explicitly speak his feelings even when they are overwhelmingly obvious ("I have more in common with these gooks than with my own family"), Eastwood is providing no reason to believe that elsewhere he is being subtly deep.

Anyway, I'm with Ray on this one. But I enjoyed your review.

PIPER said...

Ray,

At no time did I say this was a review of the movie. These are my thoughts. A reaction. That's all. Yes it fails a lot, but I found it enjoyable.

Jason,

Yes, I wasn't very clear in what I was saying. My apologies. My point is this. I don't feel that Eastwood gets much respect as a director. And yet, I feel that everyone thinks that every movie he puts out should be Oscar worthy. That's all. I may go back and correct it to make more sense. Reading it again, I can understand how it comes off.

And I probably gave that scene a little more credit than it deserves. But for some reason or another, I find myself having strong emotions to some of Eastwood's scenes. In Million Dollar Baby, in Bridges of Madison County and in this. If it makes me a poor sap (not that that's what you're accusing me of) then so be it. I am usually a rather cynical person in movies, and yet Eastwood manages to do something to me. Not sure why.

PIPER said...

To both Ray and Jason,

While watching this film it did occur to me that even Eastwood's best films are horribly flawed - mostly in the lack of character depth department. The children and the grandchildren in Gran Torino are so hollow. So shallow, it's truly laughable. It truly is pedestrian writing. And some of the direction is god-awful. I suppose I shouldn't be surprised. I've always heard of one-take Eastwood and I think that is finally catching up with him. And it would have been easy for me to point out all that was wrong with the film, but there have been so many that have already done that, so I decided to use the film as a reflection of his career.

Jason Bellamy said...

Hey, some directors just do it for us. In recent months I've posted previous raves for "The Fountain" and "Sunshine," both films that make horrible decisions at times that I'm entirely aware of but that win me over just the same. So I identify with that. And perhaps the only difference is that there are fewer champions of "The Fountain" and "Sunshine" than there are of Eastwood in recent years. As I said the first time, I'm certainly not trying to argue against your genuine reaction.

Ray said...

@ Piper - Not sure if every one of Eastwood's films are flawed. UNFORGIVEN is one of my favorite films, and I think it is damn near perfect. I just think he's getting sloppy with his choices, because every one of his films gets overwhelming and undeserved praise.

This script, for instance, should never have made it out of the mailroom of the Lifetime network, let alone produced by major Hollywood players in time for Oscar contention.

PIPER said...

Ray,

I agree with you that Unforgiven is my favorite of his. And I think that everyone was fantastic, except The Schofield Kid. He was a miss. Not a huge one, but he wasn't as solid as everyone else. But other than that, it was a near flawless film.

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Anonymous said...

Has anyone seen Letters from Iwa Jima? Great movie.
Unforgiven. Great Movie.
Million Dollar Baby. Very Good.
Mystic River. Very Good.


I think that qualifies Eastwood as a force.

PIPER said...

Brian (Anon)

I haven't seen Iwa Jima.

Unforgiven is a great movie.

I liked Million Dollar Baby and you know that I didn't think Mystic River was all that good.

But I still think Eastwood is a good director. He just doesn't seem to be someone who works at his craft. He is the anti-thesis of Kubrick.

Anonymous said...

Kubrick? That's rarefied air.