Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Gran Torino

I'm just gonna throw it out there. Gran Torino is the best movie of the 2008 season. It's better than Slumdog, better than the Dark Knight or Ironman, better than Benjamin Button, and it's a damn sight better than Milk, The Reader, or Frost/Nixon. Gran Torino is a film that tells a story that takes the viewer through the whole spectrum of human emotion, and that's rare.

Clint Eastwood stars, directs, and produces the film. That right there should assure you of it's quality, as the two of the previous films he did that for, 1992's Unforgiven, and 2004's Million Dollar Baby, took both best director and best picture. I've been very impressed with the transition Eastwood has made in his career, coming all the way from the "idiot of the plains" in Rawhide, to esteemed actor, and now to one of the best directors and producers in the business.

Eastwood performs as Walt Kowalski. An aging Korean War veteran who spent most of his life working in the Ford assembly plants in Detroit. Mr. Kowalski is a hard, prejudiced, and politically incorrect man. He still lives in the mindset of the 1950s, with good and the bad that brings. He's a hard worker, and he has high expectations of himself and those around him. He's also very judgemental, and over the course of the film uses racial epithets with casual ease. Eastwood's acting is amazing here. A little snort here, a scowl there, and even before he opens his mouth, you have a full understanding of how set in his ways this man is.

The acting is great beyond Eastwood too. The film used a large number of Hmong actors with little or no previous experience. Bee Vang and Ahney Her play Thao and Sue Vang Lor, respectively. Thao is a young Hmong boy who has to deal with the gangs that roam the neighborhood, and Sue is a sassy lippy girl who assimilated into American culture with much more ease than the rest of her extensive family. Both of them do a great job at their roles.

Christopher Casey acts as Father Janovich, Mr. Kowalski's Catholic priest, who promised Walt's wife to look after him after she passed on. Janovich is devout, intelligent, and very naive. He spends most of the film serving as the concience for Walt, despite Walt's wishes.

Gran Torino begins in mourning. Walt Kowalski's wife has passed away, and he stand's beside his wife's casket, watching his family shuffle into the pews of the church for the funeral service. They disgust him. One grandson is dressed in a Roy Williams Detroit Lions jersey, his granddaughter is dressed in a far more revealing outfit than a girl her age should wear, and his other grandson is so irreverent it's sickening. Father Janovich delivers a weak eulogy, and the wake, back at Mr. Kowalski's house in Highland Park, is marred by his spoiled family.

As Mr. Kowalski goes out for a chew with his dog, Daisy, he notices yet another Hmong family moving into the neighborhood. This one right next door. Thao and Sue are part of this family. The Hmong are the indigenous hill people of Laos, Vietnam, and Thailand. They supported the US in the Vietnam War, but when America lost interest, they were slaughtered by Vietnamese forces. Many Hmong became refugees and sought asylum in the US. Most settled in the northern mid west, Minnesota, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Walt just sees them as another bunch of Gooks.

Thao is a shy, introspective kid, who is often picked on by mexican and african gangs. His cousin, "Spider", leads a Hmong gang, that protects him, and pushes him to join. His rite of initiation is to steal a 1972 Gran Torino fastback, a car owned, and built, by one Walter Kowalski. Thao breaks into Walt's garage in the night, waking up the old man. Walt immediately goes to his old army footlocker, and pulls out an M-1 Garand and rushes to defend his property. Walt catches Thao, and was inches away from turning the kid's head into a fine mist, but a coughing fit give Thao enough of a distraction to make his escape.

The next night, the gang is displeased with Thao's failure, and come to Thao's house to take him for another try. This does not make his older sister Sue very happy. There's a tussle, and the whole Hmong clan pretty much winds up out in the yard yelling and shoving. The altercation soon crosses property lines as Thao try to run, and a gang member tackles him, only to look up into the muzzle of Kowalski's M-1. "Get off my lawn..." Walt growls. The gang members relent, and the Hmong are amazed at Mr. Kowalski. They're so thankful for Walt saving Thao from the gang, that they leave gifts for him, ranging from flower bouquets, to whole chickens. Walt is flabbergasted at their affection, as he just wanted to be left alone.

The Hmong clan sends Thao to work for Mr. Kowalski as penance for his attempt at stealing the car. At first, Walt is dismissive, but as he watches the boy work, he begins to appreciate the situation the the kid is in. He begins to work with Thao and Sue to help them improve their lives. Acting as a mentor to Thao, and a friend to Sue, Walt begins to realize how much he has in common with them. He softens to them internally, while externally he remains as grizzled and profane as ever. As events unfold however, he comes to a dark realization. Thao and Sue will never have a real chance at a peaceful life as long as the gangs still have their hold on the neighborhood.

The movie is kind of like the muscle car it's named for. It's sleek and somewhat unadorned. The film is all skill and no budget. There are no real amazing special effects, but the editing is some of the best I've ever seen. There isn't a big name pop soundtrack, but the score is suited perfectly to the film. It's kind of bare-bones. Like an old Gran Torino you see on a used car lot. Kind of a spectre, but the power is there.

Speaking of spectres, it feels as if the ghosts of Eastwood's previous roles are haunting this film. Walt Kowalski's character could easily be Harry Callahan in retirement, or if the film were set in an earlier time, it could be the last ride of The Man With No Name. With the feel of the character, and the powerful ending of the film, I could easily see this as being Eastwood's swan song as an actor. It almost felt like his way of saying goodbye to that part of his life. I hope he remains as a director though.

You will laugh during this film. You will be filled with righteous fury. You will be at peace. You will be proud. You will feel sorrow. This film will move you. It will stir every emotion. This movie is as good as I could ask for.

Gran Torino is 116 minutes long. It as awarded a 72 on Metacritic. I was very impressed. This film went beyond my already high expectations of it. I'm going to give it a 10/10.

10 comments:

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JettyKoff said...

I wonder what Walt Kowalski would have said about how his movie, which was far and away the best picture, was treated by the critics. He probably would have snarled something about how Hollywood political correctness had more to do with which film and which actor get Oscars than the actual performances. No matter. Gran Torino will be the film people will still be watching and talking about twenty years from now, long after the rest of that years' stuff has faded from memory. Clint Eastwood is America's greatest storyteller.

許瑋菁 said...

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