Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Movies: Gran Torino

I was certain that this movie was going to suck. I laughed so hard during the trailer that I gave myself a stomach-ache. What could be more preposterous than Clint Eastwood in his traditional vigilante role, only this time pulling guns (or just pointed fingers) at a rainbow coalition of teenaged gangstas?

Turns out Clint has a better sense of irony than I thought. At long last, a screenplay (courtesy Nick Schenk) that, for all its racist epithets (which is all anyone seems able to talk about), flows, feels real. Eastwood plays a Korean War vet, freshly widowered, with two spoiled sons, a sprinkling of spoiled grandchildren, and a mint-condition Gran Torino that he helped build when he worked at the Ford plant. He keeps his home, his car, and his guns ship-shape, with no company but an all-American yellow lab and a cooler full of (unironic) PBR cans. He's also the last white man in the neighborhood.

This man becomes an unintentional hero simply by protecting his own lawn at gunpoint; the next morning, his stairs are covered with gifts from the Asian families of the neighborhood. The plucky girl next door, Sue, forces a friendship, enabling the widower vet to also become mentor to her shy and aimless brother Thao. Clint and his guns save Thao from his gangster cousins, then Sue from a trio of black thugs, salivating after quickly dispatching her white wanna-be thug wanna-be boyfriend (this is probably the film's best scene: honest, wry, terribly funny, and even a bit scary).

What he can't save them from is retaliation; not only does their house get shot up, but Thao's face gets burnt with a cigarette, and Sue gets beaten and raped (yes, by her own so-called family). Of course, Clint goes into vigilante mode, but instead of bringing a gun, the man with little left to live for brings only his life, and when he gets shot full of bullets (landing in a none-too-subtle Christ-posture, arms akimbo), all the Asian gangsters get sent to prison, an ending not satisfying for all, but plenty satisfying for me. Thao, of course, inherits the Gran Torino, much to the spoilt granddaughter's dismay.

So maybe there's nothing ironic about the ending; I've actually heard the film called certain variations of cloying, saccharine, sentimental, and improbable. But after a season of cloying, saccharine, sentimental, and improbably films, Gran Torino really does feel refreshing, unflinching. And I don't think it's simply because we're so culturally hypersensitive these days that a slew of sordid soubriquets makes a big bang. I think it's because Eastwood has made about a gazillion movies and by now knows exactly what he's doing.

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