Monday, February 16, 2009
Last Wednesday night, I met with my niece Holly and her fiance Cleavon over at the local movie theater The Parkway to see the new Clint Eastwood movie Gran Torino. The movie has done excellent business since it was released last year, and is now the highest grossing Clint Eastwood movie of all time, not adjusting for inflation. If you've only seen the TV ads or you look at this poster, you might think the movie is about Old Dirty Harry, but Eastwood's character Walt Kowalski is more like an Archie Bunker who never got fat and lived in Detroit instead of New York.
Walt Kowalski doesn't like people. We are told that he adored his wife, but it's not too much of a spoiler to say the first scene of the movie is his wife's funeral, and her death takes away one of the few people on earth Walt could even tolerate. He doesn't like his kids, he doesn't like his grandkids, and with a steady stream of racial and ethnic epithets, we find that he doesn't have much use for any members of humanity. He's one of the last white people left in his neighborhood, his next door neighboors being Hmong refugees from Laos. A dispute arises and Kowalski helps his neighbors, but only because the fracas had escalated and moved onto his property. The local Hmong community try to show their appreciation, but he wants none of it. Like many stories of old curmudgeons, the arc of the plot is Walt slowly coming to accept the friendship of the people who aren't like him, who remind him of the people he was told to kill when he was a soldier in Korea.
I liked the movie very much, but it is fair to say that after Eastwood, this is a no star cast. I recognized none of the Asian cast, and the second best known actor in the cast list is probably John Carroll Lynch, a character actor who has done a ton of TV work and in most of his movie appearances, has a small role, very well played. For example, he was Norm Gunderson in Fargo, the stamp painting husband of the hero of the movie, Marge Gunderson. In this movie, Lynch plays Walt Kowalski's barber.
I compared Walt Kowalski to Archie Bunker, and at least in multicultural Oakland, Gran Torino plays like a tragedy with yucks. The crowd laughed loud and long every time Walt let loose with a stream of epithets aimed at every race and ethnicity, and even a few directed towards various creeds. When he asks the young Hmong woman why these Asian hill people ended up in cold, bleak Detroit, she explains that most of the Hmong had been sponsored by Lutheran missionaries. "Oh, sure. Blame it on the Lutherans. Everybody else does." Walt grumbles back.
If you haven't seen it yet, Matty Boy says check it out. It's not loaded down with action scenes or big explosions, so it won't lose much being seen on a small screen as a video rental. Eastwood does an excellent job as star and director. It's remarkable how much work he is doing at the age of 78, and has at least one film currently in pre-production. He may be a Republican, but don't hold that against him. He does good work.