Walt Kowalski is, to put it gently, an old crank, given to growling and spitting like a distempered stray. He's a mass of gruff prejudices against the minorities who've moved into his Michigan town. When some kids brawl in front of his house, he brandishes a rifle and actually shouts, "Get off my lawn!" In any other movie, he'd be the sour comic relief or the monster's first victim. But since, in Gran Torino, he's played by Clint Eastwood, Walt is a stalwart man of the Midwest--the hero who has a score to settle. With himself.
Well into his fifth decade as one of the world's most popular and honored movie stars, Eastwood has lately sloughed off acting to concentrate on directing; Gran Torino is the ninth feature (including the documentary Piano Blues) that he's helmed since turning 70 in 2000. He doesn't do much work in front of the camera anymore, but what's there is choice. His last starring role, as the grizzled fight trainer in 2004's Million Dollar Baby, earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor, while the movie won for picture, actress (Hilary Swank), supporting actor (Morgan Freeman) and, of course, director. Nobody else has directed Eastwood in a movie since Wolfgang Petersen made In the Line of Fire back in '93.
That makes an Eastwood lead role a movie event--especially since he's hinted he would stick to directing from now on. About Gran Torino, he recently said, "That will probably do it for me as far as acting is concerned." (We hope not. At 78, he still looks great.) He might have been kidding, but you'll want to catch the film in case it really is the Lone Thespian taking his last ride into the sunset.
The Star with No Peer
He's done all right for a fellow who began as a Universal contract player in 1955, doing bit roles in movies starring giant spiders (Tarantula) and talking mules (Francis in the Navy). He settled into the saddle as ramrod Rowdy Yates, second lead in the cattle-drive TV western Rawhide, a job that guaranteed a paycheck but deferred movie fame. Sergio Leone changed all that when he paid Eastwood $15,000 to play a misanthrope with a gun, wiping out two teams of bad guys, in Fistful of Dollars. By the time he'd done two more Leone westerns, For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Eastwood was a star in the classic Hollywood sense--which is to say he had found a persona that he could comfortably inhabit and that would attract customers in the U.S. and abroad, where they call him "Cleent."
That persona basically took John Wayne, the solitary western hero, and made him nastier, edgier, way easier to anger. Where the Duke drawled and lumbered--he wasn't so much a cattleman as a cattle man--Clint scowled and pounced, a scorpion with stubble. This character was both iconic and malleable: he was as at home on the streets as on the range and as a cop (in the Dirty Harry series), a convict (Escape from Alcatraz), a soldier (Heartbreak Ridge) and, later, a father figure like the Old Testament God--anyone with an intimidating presence and a sandpaper soul. Is that acting? Sure. He doesn't just behave; he performs, confidently, richly, within the slim range of the Man with No Name, no home and no regrets. How do we know this is acting? Because in person Eastwood is genial, soft-spoken, quick-smiling--the opposite of the movie Clint in temperament and thoughtfulness, his equal only in stature.
Another similarity: the self-assurance of the Clint character, an almost religious trust in first impulses, is reflected in Eastwood's method as a film director. Others take years to nurse a project; Eastwood revved up Gran Torino in June, started shooting in mid-July and had his final cut by the end of October. This cool efficiency endears him to screenwriters (if he likes a script, he shoots it without demanding a million rewrites) and most actors (if he likes Take 1, he prints it and goes to the next scene). Hey, it's only a movie. And often--say, Breezy, Pale Rider, Unforgiven, Million Dollar Baby, Flags of Our Fathers, to skim five off the top--they are movies that have the craft and heart of classic Hollywood, without that musty antique odor.
Now, decisiveness is fine, but it raises the question, Is Clint Eastwood too easily satisfied? Sometimes scripts do need to be rewritten or pared down. Often actors will be strongest in Take 13 or 30. And shooting a movie fast isn't the same as making it move, which Eastwood's films don't always do; they can be both slack and slapdash. Most critics love Clint the auteur, and there's plenty to admire, but his directorial style is in danger of being as overrated as his acting is underrated. He's a fine director when he connects with the linear clarity of a simple story--which is why the teeming narratives of Mystic River and Changeling don't work quite so well as straight-ahead fables like Million Dollar Baby and Gran Torino. The latter movies have one other advantage: the director is also the star.
Cleansing Dirty Harry
There are many men, of sullen disposition and modest achievement, who watch a Clint Eastwood movie and wish they could resolve their daily dilemmas with a blast of gunfire and walk away free. Walt Kowalski might be such a one. At his wife's funeral, he can swat away the condolences of relatives and the parish priest, but he can't evict them from his life. Retired after 50 years on the Ford assembly line, Walt is as much an endangered species as the company he worked for. While he carefully maintains his house, white picket fence and all, the neighbors' homes have chipped paint and the sag of misuse. He's a cowboy stuck in the desolate Midwest, and instead of stubborn Indians and stud gunslingers, he's surrounded by Hispano-punks and Hmong immigrants from Southeast Asia. And now Tao (Bee Vang), a Hmong teen who's bullied by both ethnic groups, has broken into Walt's garage to steal the old man's most treasured possession: his 1972 Gran Torino.
Channeling Henry Fonda's balky geezer in On Golden Pond (though he's robust where Fonda was frail), Walt is clearly destined for interracial rehab; the movie's story is the thawing of this great slab of mean. He warms to Tao, who could use some foster-fathering; to Tao's well-adjusted sister Sue (Ahney Her); and to their whole adorably folkloric clan. But Walt needs more than living among the Hmong. As a family elder tells him, "You're not at peace."
After stewing for years in what might seem like standard working-class racism, Walt has to resolve his soldiering in the Korean War--when, he tells Tao, "I used to stash guys like you five feet high in Korea. Used 'em for sandbags." Still haunted by killings that now weigh on him like war crimes, he must emerge from his white-picket cave of bitterness and find a purpose for his life: to become a guardian angel to Tao and Sue and an angel of death to anyone who'd do these decent kids harm.
In other words, Walt must both be a Man with No Name, a Dirty Harry, and find a cause beyond duty or blood sport to atone for his Korean gunmanship. This fits with Eastwood's rounding out of his familiar character in later films--challenging the audience to accept "Cleent" when he does surprising things. In Million Dollar Baby, killing was an act of mercy. Here, for Walt to put his life on the line, in a kind of suicide mission, is a final act of contrition.
Eastwood the director, commendably casting major roles from within the Hmong community, elicits a naturalness from his untutored young stars, though for a while you must take the performances on faith, as Walt learns to take the people. But Eastwood the actor is in total command, daring himself to new depths. You'll see a tough man cry--one of the few flourishings of tears in the Eastwood oeuvre. That unaffected emotion eventually informs the whole movie, making it a wrenching, rewarding experience.
If Gran Torino is his last hurrah as a movie star, that's too bad. But he couldn't find a better one to go out on--not just as a valediction for the crusty character he's played so often and for so long but as a final twisting validation of it. Along with his famous guts, Dirty Harry has a heart.