When Bruce Springsteen did his 9/11 response record, The Rising, he was in an odd position–given the gravity of his intent, he couldn’t misstep. He might get excused for it, but then the record would be (albeit well-meaning) propaganda. It wouldn’t be art.
Clint Eastwood’s in a similar situation with Gran Torino. He’s dealing with capital I issues here, a whole slew of them ranging from post-war psychological trauma (the film’s very much a companion piece to his two Iwo Jima films), the Church, minority relations, generational divides, gender… that Eastwood’s character is a vocal bigot probably doesn’t even make the top ten. Eastwood can’t make any mistakes or the film won’t work. It’ll be Crash.
He doesn’t make any mistakes.
Gran Torino is a throwback to older Eastwood films in a lot of ways, to his films of the 1970s more than those of the 1990s. The film doesn’t have a particularly large cast and the action takes place mostly in two houses. It reminded me a lot of Nobody’s Fool in the way that film was the perfect old Paul Newman picture, this one is the perfect old Clint Eastwood one. Eastwood’s front and center for almost the entire film, I don’t remember the last time his acting was so central to one of his films. But it isn’t his monologues, because he only has a couple and they’re short and he doesn’t say much in them, it’s Eastwood acting opposite a dog. It’s one of the most transformative performances I’ve ever seen from an icon, someone who wasn’t adopting a different accent or hairstyle, growing a beard or putting on a bunch of weight. It’s Clint Eastwood, right there on the screen, but he personifies Walt Kowalski immediately.
Otherwise, the film wouldn’t work. It doesn’t work if it’s about Eastwood making a statement. In the end, Gran Torino doesn’t have a big moral. It’s pro-melting pot in an understated way, if that position qualifies as a moral. The film’s incredibly quiet, with Eastwood’s Panavision frame constantly showcasing the everyday. Some wonderful things happen in Gran Torino–the loudest atrocities aren’t even the worst–and Eastwood doesn’t draw attention to any of them.
The film’s interesting in terms of its debuts. It’s writer Nick Schenk’s first feature. Co-stars Bee Vang and Abney Her haven’t been in anything else. Watching Hey in particular is fascinating, because she works so well with Eastwood. During the silences in their scenes together, the mind can almost step back and admire his work directing her. These are half-thoughts though, with the film seizing one again immediately. Vang’s scenes with Eastwood are entirely different (which is another one of the big issues Gran Torino covers) and Vang’s character’s development through the film is noteworthy. But even Christopher Carley, in–I guess–the fourth biggest role, hasn’t been in very much, and his scenes–as Eastwood’s indefatigable priest–are great.
In smaller roles, Brian Haley, Geraldine Hughes and John Carroll Lynch are all good.
Tom Stern’s photography is excellent–the sound from Bud Asman and company is particularly fantastic–and James J. Murakami’s production design is great. The film’s technical perfection. Eastwood gives son Kyle Eastwood (and Michael Stevens) scoring duties here and their contributions might be another reason it feels so different from his modern work.
Fifteen or twenty minutes into the film, it reminded me of Interiors–a flawless, but dispassionately (on my part) inevitable masterpiece. It isn’t. Through its humor and its delicateness, Gran Torino exhilarates.
Back to Eastwood not being able to make a false step… I’m pretty sure Gran Torino is the first Eastwood film to end with an original song penned by Eastwood (with Jamie Cullum, Kyle Eastwood and Michael Stevens). He’s done original pieces of music before himself (and scores himself), but a song is something else. And it’s perfect.