Gran Torino (Eastwood, 2008) – Thoughts in response to Richard Brody

I haven’t actually seen Gran Torino since it first premiered in the US in 2008, so these thoughts may be colored by that amount of time.  I recently read Richard Brody’s article in the New Yorker, itself a response to a Yahoo.com article, defending Clint Eastwood’s last four films prior to the upcoming J. Edgar.  These films include Changeling (2008), Gran Torino (2008), Invictus (2009) and Hereafter (2010).  I haven’t seen the latter two films, and I really want to concentrate on Gran Torino.

Brody writes that Gran Torino-

…”shows a wounded, pathologically self-disciplined and rigidly principled character who exerts the potentially benevolent influence of his discipline and his principles—to a pathological and destructive extent. It’s a film of political failures and social breakdowns which elicit an active response from the kind of person who is least likely to act with measured judgment. Eastwood plays a character whose virtues and evils are bound together inextricably…”

You can read the rest of Brody’s article here: http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/movies/2011/11/eastwoods-imperfect-world.html

I don’t disagree with Brody’s assessment.  I enjoy reading his articles, and this one, though I now look forward to seeing Hereafter in order to gauge its “anticlerical” status, is no exception.  It does, however, lead me to a question, which I’ll get to in a moment.

I don’t like Gran Torino.  There are great things in the film.  Eastwood is, as always, superb.  Some of the supporting cast is as well.  The evolving relationships, the cantankerous old-timer who basically puts aside long-ingrained ideology in favor of simple compassion, and the politically incorrect dialogue (for sake of a politically correct narrative) all work.

The question at hand then: can a film that close to fails in certain crucial aspects of filmmaking still be considered a good film?  This of course begs: What makes a good film?   A subjective question to be sure.  To boil it down to the basic tenets you have image (we’ll call this mise-en-scène, everything within the frame), story, acting, and sound.  Eastwood’s film succeeds in the former and the latter, but it’s the middle two, particularly where some of the rest of the supporting cast is concerned, that it falters.

It’s no secret that Eastwood used nonprofessional actors to play some of the roles in Gran Torino.  Bee Vang plays Thao and Ahney Her plays Sue.  I’ll mention a third party, which is Christopher Carley (playing Father Janovich) who, though having garnered other roles, finds himself here in one of his few true supporting jobs.

Nonprofessional actors are a nice story.  They can add to the “realism” of the film – there’s a history of using them in the now-famous Italian Neorealism film period and the early days of independent cinema.  They can add to the publicity behind the film.  But if they’re no good, then nice story-be-damned, they hurt the film.  While Vang, Her and Carley all pour their hearts into their roles, they just don’t come off.  It’s such a detriment that as the climax nears, a scene where Eastwood’s Walt Kowalski locks Thao in his basement so that Walt can go take his bloody revenge, becomes laughable.  This is a scene that should have heart, that should precede the ultimate sacrifice, that should be the high point in their relationship.  Instead, Thao’s histrionic screams of “Walt” are unintentionally hilarious – the true emotion lost in a stilted delivery and uncomfortable body-language.  It’s acting when we don’t want to see that it’s acting.

The story is a bit more difficult to criticize as again, I agree with Brody’s aforementioned thoughts as well as when he says that Walt is-

“…a dinosaur who awakens, emerging out of the past to blast away—in the name of enduring principles—at present-day injustices with the brute force of old-time injustices.”

This is keenly observed, but the ham-handed, crucifixion ending, where Walt lies dead on the ground, stretched out as though on a cross, is an unnecessary and undeserved moment.  The moment of sacrifice has already come and passed.  There’s little-to-no Christian foreshadow outside of Walt’s old-tyme religion.  The comparison is unfair and ludicrous also in begging to extend the metaphor, which would surely have to paint someone in Gran Torino as in the same passion play, but there are no Judases, Pilates or otherwise to be found.  It’s a plugged in symbol, introduced only to be water-cooler chatter and to appeal to that slice of the audience that would recognize and appreciate it.

This one moment doesn’t discount the entire story, for sure, but I’m hard pressed to think of a film that I really admire, which is lacking in these critical areas.  Even some of the lowest-budgeted independent films are granted that worn excuse: “the (acting, direction, sound, etc) was subpar…but it was an indie film.”  Hard to judge Gran Torino even in this light.

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About dcpfilm

Shooting, teaching, writing and watching the Phillies.
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