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Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Movie Review

Gran Torino
Dir. Clint Eastwood

When it comes down to it, I'd rather write about a flawed film than a perfect one. Usually what makes a film flawed in one sense or another is that its overflowing with ideas or impulses which can't be properly contained in the traditional conventions of a Hollywood film narrative. Gran Torino is Eastwood's flawed masterpiece. The culmination of his five decades in the industry. From Dirty Harry to Flags of our Fathers, High Plains Drifter to Million Dollar Baby, this film includes includes some aspect of Eastwood's career, the themes, characters, and dilemmas all come together in the restrained style which has characterized his recent career.

The film is obviously a labor of love for Eastwood, and that he gives the best performance of his career is not a surprise. He cares about his characters (though he obviously disdains several; and like Million Dollar Baby its the dysfunctional family that gets the brunt of that distaste. And the lack of character development on the part of those same characters is a weakness with both films) to the point of excess. At times it feels like Eastwood spends too much time with them, especially since the supporting acting is the film's weakest point. But that care in developing relationships is also what makes this such a refreshing and powerful film.

As with Million Dollar Baby to speak to the plot of the film is damage its potential power. While the surprise isn't as stark in a change of tone, the finale of this film is far more potent and powerful. In fact, one could view this as the companion film to Million Dollar Baby, or perhaps more directly, Mystic River. Where those film had Eastwood anxious about death and questioning any higher power, this is his reversal on several key points. And perhaps because this is like a confessional for the accumulated characters he's played through the years, the acts of contrition, as much on a comparatively small scale the events unfold, are enormous in stature.


Eastwood not only works on a personal and spiritual level for his individual character but on a larger scale as an archetype for America. Walt (Eastwood) is haunted by his actions during Korea. He must confess and repent of his sins, and make right the process of regeneration through violence he has helped perpetuate by making the ultimate sacrifice.

The film begins with two events in adjacent homes; Eastwood's house holding a memorial service for his saintly wife, while the Hmong family next door celebrates the birth of their newest child. Eastwood gives both the eastern and western versions of spirituality respect and time. In fact, it is an encounter with a Hmong elder which helps to transform Walt on his own path of spiritual redemption. But first, Walt must come to terms with the changing world around him. His body is failing, he has to adjust to living alone. It doesn't help that his priest is right out of Seminary. "You don't know anything about living or dying." he tells him. The priest in Million Dollar Baby was powerless to intervene on behalf of his wayward sheep. Father Janovich, in this film, gives his all to try and help things turn out right, and while he's a bit naive, and not quite learned on how, he manages to be an influence for good. What happens in the end is not quite a miracle, but is pretty close. That Walt's final act of sacrifice ends with his bleeding body in a recognizable religious pose confirms the assumptions that Eastwood has managed to keep suspicious and moves what is alluded to throughout the film, explicit.


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