by TOM NIXON
16 years after his classic anti-western Unforgiven, Clint finally grants himself some semblance of forgiveness with its more lighthearted vigilante analogue. Wisely avoiding a retread of Unforgiven’s thunder and grace, Eastwood maintains a different kind of contrast in Gran Torino, pitting his signature sentimental touch and some hilarious, oft-tacky camp against a self-represented grizzled hardass. When it works, it works in the same way all the unrelatable rubbish in The Searchers works; it gleans pathos from the man’s self-imposed alienation and repressed guilt, leading the way to a surprising grasp at redemption.
Walt Kowalski, a gruff, insulting, racist caricature of the Dirty Harry archetype Eastwood once served as icon, forges an unlikely relationship with a young Hmong teen after catching him trying to steal his coveted 1972 Gran Torino for a thuggish cousin. The bond grows as Walt helps the kid and his family out of a number of sticky situations and shows him how to become a real American man, all the while getting in touch with feelings of tolerance and compassion he’s never been familiar with, along with all the guilt and loneliness which suppressed it in the first place. An obvious metaphor for the development of the western mindset, yes, but more interestingly, it’s an exceedingly sly, satirical look by Eastwood at his own place in that development.
When the kid’s sister gets badly hurt by his cousin’s gang, it’s time for the vigilante killer of old to rear his ugly head in the name of justice. An inevitable result of using non-actors to make Walt’s surroundings disarmingly absurd and harmless is that this transition between comedy and tragedy is far from smooth, but the anticipation of seeing the Eastwood of old come to the fore stops it being too much of a problem. How the climax plays out ought not to be revealed here, except to say that Walt makes a choice which speaks to a hope that redemption, or a small pinch of it, is possible, if only at the end– a hope absent from Unforgiven’s endless cycles of violence. It’s only Clint who can stop an ending like this feeling like a pulled punch, a self-important moral statement; you’ve just got to grant him his indulgence this time, his self-mockery draws so much affection that you don’t even mind when he cringe-worthily sings across the closing credits.
An imperfect film but a perfect swansong, Gran Torino serves as summary of the hard-nosed all-American Clint once was and the liberal old man he feels he’s become all too late. The tacky archetypal screenplay can feel, well, tacky when it’s not directly crumbling Walt’s growly exterior, and as is common for Clint the script likes to overstate its case every so often, but Gran Torino is mostly a hilarious send-up, and it hurts with the belatedness of an emerging conscience; age and regret creaks in Clint’s parched face. It’s fitting that his final role completes the revision of his image, re-casting the Eastwood mystique in a moral light.
New releases this week: Two Lovers, Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li, 12 Rounds, Jonas Brothers: The 3D Concert Experience