It took damn near the entire year, but 2008 has finally witnessed its most sublime entertainment. Make no mistake, Clint Eastwood’s latest is an appalling mess from stem to stern; a laughable, unwieldy hodgepodge of cliché, stereotype, and obligatory absurdity that would be dismissed out of hand had it been made by anyone other than cinema’s most grizzled veteran. To take it seriously is to flirt with obscenity; there isn’t a scene that rings in any tone save the insipid, and no performance even makes a half-hearted effort to get off the couch and embrace shading or depth. It’s a lazy, inept screenplay, complete with half-baked motivations, cardboard criminality, and third act transitions that could be spotted by Stevie Wonder in a sandstorm.
And yet, taking the sum total of such criticisms, bringing them close to the body, shaking them down, and giving them the most thorough inspection, I haven’t been this giddy in months. Horrified by the incompetence of just about every scene, a beaming smile still never left my face. With such love oozing from every pore, and the strongest sense I’ve had yet of hugging myself into a stupor, I can declare Gran Torino an unqualified masterpiece of bad cinema. Let it run down through the ages as the old man’s most insanely enjoyable work yet. Hell, it just might be the first film to ever qualify as both the best and worst of its given year.
Clint is Walt Kowalski, a Korean War veteran who has just lost his wife of untold years, yet still carries on; held together, I imagine, by the most cuddly streak of bigotry since Archie Bunker last puffed a cigar. Walt hates his kids, mocks the clergy, spits tobacco up, down, and around his little patch of hell in a typically devastated section of Michigan, and reserves his most loathsome comments for anyone, frankly, who isn’t just like him. Sure, he saves most of his ire for the Hmong family that lives next door, but he’s not so feeble that he can’t fire up a racist insult for any black or Mexican who happens to meet his glare. Walt worked a half century in the auto industry, a plum position to stack next to his murderous service in the military (by his own count, he sent 13 yellow bastards to their graves), and naturally, he believes these two facts entitle him to rub raw any wound he cares to open.
He’s a sumbitch from the old school; a mean, crusty, unenlightened creep who yammers about “the kids today,” all while growling at anything pierced, tattooed, or shaded a tad more darkly than his own skin, best described as a leathery lion in winter. But who on earth could dismiss him outright? He hates, but we all know the score; he just hasn’t sat down with anyone long enough to appear vulnerable. As such, he’s but a few meals away from becoming a teddy bear.
Fortunately, his heart fails to melt entirely, and even though he acts as a mentor to the neighbor boy Thao, he still calls him “Toad” right up until the final bell; that is, when he isn’t tossing around “zipperhead” and “gook” with cheerful abandon. That Walt uses an anti-Vietnamese slur to describe a people who inhabit China and Laos is meant to highlight the silliness of racial prejudice, but his bomb-throwing is too damned fun to get overly analytical. Say what you want, Walt’s cruel streak, though not a real character trait by any stretch of the imagination, is almost surreal in its amusement. I think because we’ve grown so accustomed to feeling obligated to recoil in horror at such talk, it’s liberating to have someone of Eastwood’s stature say it for us.
Needless to say, we don’t have to agree with a word the man is saying, but who on earth could get away with such language other than the one octogenarian who could still kick all our asses in the alley of his choosing? My god, Clint spits out both “beaner” and “spook” without the shame that sensitivity training has brought to the culture, and we roar with delight not because we are cheering unabashed hatred, but rather out of admiration for anyone who dares travel down a road we thought long closed.
Sure, a healthy portion of the film’s appeal lies in sitting back, getting comfortable, and listening to an icon of the silver screen erupt like the minutes from a Klan meeting, but there’s more to this tripe than that. Not much more, but enough. Throughout, I couldn’t help but think that at long last, Clint’s made that final Dirty Harry picture, as if Callahan left San Francisco for good and retired to Midwestern suburbia. Only he stayed a bit too long and now, he’s the last remaining white holdout. But isn’t that like Harry, after all? Wouldn’t he stick around, sniffing about with self-righteous fury, waiting for just the right time to unearth his cache of weapons and treat us all to a suitably sinister one-liner?
Only instead of “Make my day,” he’s here to warn, “Get off my lawn.” Like Harry, Walt has everyone in his sights, and though we are denied an apocalyptic bloodbath, we do get to see grandpa kick the shit out of a young man at least 60 years his junior, as well as talk to ghetto hoodlums with all the bravado of a trained killer who isn’t above adding a few more bodies to the pile. As he tells an Asian gangster one evening, “I’ll put a hole in your face, go back inside and sleep like a baby.” Who but Clint could pull off such a line, granting it the necessary machismo, while also leaving just enough daylight to see the inherent humor? And when he follows it with, “I once stacked fuckers like you five feet high and used ‘em like sandbags,” we can either call for the script doctor, or applaud like drunken seals. Only the foolish would dare consider anything but the latter.
The arc of the story, such as it is, involves Walt’s blooming relationship with Thao, who is first brought to Walt’s attention after he tries to steal his prized ‘72 Gran Torino for a gang initiation. Thao’s heart isn’t in it, of course, which means that he’s receptive to the teachings of a wise old sage. Only this mentor is an unreformed bigot, who uses their time together to call him a pussy for not asking out the Asian girl he affectionately calls “Yum-Yum.” Walt can’t be bothered with names that aren’t all-American, apparently unaware of his own Polish origins. Walt gets out of this one too, though, by comically ribbing his barber (after he think haircuts have gone up in price, he barks, “What are you, half-Jewish?”), and taking Polack jokes in kind. For Walt, this is how real men talk. Perhaps, but I’m just thankful I got to hear Eastwood call someone a prick for what might be the last time.
Thao works dutifully for Walt as a way to pay him back for his honorable defense the night the gang members came to take him away, but we all know this is but a contrivance to pull the generations (and cultures) together. Walt also falls for Thao’s sister, Sue, mainly because she’s sassy and doesn’t take any of Walt’s shit. To show how much he likes the girl, he calls her “dragon lady,” though admittedly with a wink and a smile. Even resorting to “you people” stereotypes doesn’t re-ignite old tensions. Sue sees right through the old goat, and figures he should be humored rather than challenged. There’s something to the concept of treating hatred with mockery rather than direct, teeth-baring confrontation, but that’s for another movie. We just hope Clint shouts “nip” a few more times before the closing credits. He does not let us down.
Beyond this obvious passing of the torch (Walt’s lone remaining purpose is to make Thao a man), we click off all the expected scenes: Walt’s children suggesting a senior community (and the resulting snarls), Walt’s confession to the long-suffering priest (who is just a younger version of the one from Million Dollar Baby), Walt finally warming up to the neighbors because they serve him food, and yes, the “foreboding cough” that leads to a doctor’s visit, the presence of some cryptic hospital records, and a half-hearted call to his estranged son, which leads nowhere, but is code for, “I’m dying, so let’s not leave anything unsaid.” Surely the blood-filled hacking is worst of all, and I swore years ago to hate any film that stooped to the level of a Victorian melodrama, though that emotion just can’t apply this time around.
Sure, I rolled my eyes dutifully, but since the first sin occurred not too long after the most laughably amateurish photoshop I’ve seen in years, I was too blitzed to care. And for chrissakes, how else would we get Walt to leave the firepower at home, walk up to the gang’s house, reach for a lighter, and get sprayed with gunfire, just so he could die a martyr? You see, Walt has to die (and in front of dozens of witnesses) so that the thugs can be arrested and sent to prison. Walt dying in a blaze of glory after taking out a few punks would have been my personal choice for a denouement, but had that been pursued, we may not have seen Walt fall to the ground while the camera lifted skyward, giving us a perfect Jesus Christ pose for the symbolically illiterate. Only Clint could lay it on so thick and still smell like a fucking rose.
As if all this shit wasn’t enough, the final passages hold the reward of seeing Clint Fucking Eastwood in an open casket, dead to the world like some two-bit character actor. I’m not 100% certain, but I do believe this is the first time we’ve ever seen this living legend as a corpse. I was so shocked, in fact, that I half expected him to brush aside the lid, leap to his feet, and curse the congregation for being so gullible. Either that, or Walt was faking his own death to save the kid, punish the gangsters, and allow for a new life in Florida or something. One scene later, Thao is awarded the Gran Torino in Walt’s will, though the kid is made to promise he won’t re-tool it like “some beaner.” It’s the endearing racism rearing its head, even from the grave.
And as Thao drives into the sunset, a man with skills, tools, and a future, the evils of Paint Your Wagon are erased forever by the soulful sounds of a crooning Clint Eastwood. You heard me: Clint in a casket and singing like a songbird with a sore throat, all in the same movie. We’ve been pretty depraved as a nation, so I’m not sure we deserved this. But here it is, and on Christmas, no less. If this is Mr. Eastwood’s swan song as an actor, he chose wisely, like Joan Crawford with Trog, or George C. Scott with Gloria. If a man must wallow in shit, let him be coated with the stink of high ideals. And leave ‘em laughing. Always leave ‘em laughing.