There’s a view in some circles that knowing too much about an author’s personal history is unhelpful. The argument goes that it can obscure us from what’s really going on in the film/book/play; we are too prone to put two and two together, before even making sure that the sum should be done at all in the first place. There may be some wisdom in that at time, but Gran Torino really gives the lie to it; and as such, that’s what I’m drawn to in this film. Another time I could explore the role of faith in this story or the issue of urban integration or male identity. Or so much else. For now, though, let’s allow the star and director to shape reflections.
It’s widely presumed that this is to be Clint Eastwood’s final film in front of the camera, though it’s likely he’ll continue as director (it’s not like he doesn’t keep himself busy – with this and Changling, he doesn’t hang around). If this is his last performance, it’s almost impossible not to hear the echoes and see the shadows of his career all over this. Thematically, it reminds me of No Country For Old Men; a story about growing old, feeling that the world is changing for the worse and we’re not able to do anything about it. In the case of the Coen brothers’ film, though, you’re naturally sympathetic to the character approaching retirement – he is, after all, trying to deal with serial killer. Here, though, the lines are more blurred. Clint’s character is am aging combat veteran, whose wife has died, in suburban Detroit, the sort of neighbourhood that seems to be only just down the road from seriously run down areas. This impinges materially and socially. He’s next door to a Hmong family, a people from Laos & Vietnam, historically persecuted and finally allowed to settle in the USA due to support given to America during the Vietnam war.
Walt (Clint), though, fought in Korea and sees his neigbours and one and the same with those he fought against. He doesn’t like them, doesn’t understand them and doesn’t want them on his lawn. It’s here that you fear the film is going to drift into ‘life-lesson of the week’ territory – Walt intervenes to protect his lawn and saves one of them, a teenage boy. The boy’s family see him as indebted to Walt, and insist he works for Walt. There the film could go so wrong.
It doesn’t because at times it’s very funny, leavening the uncomfortable issues of social change, multiculturalism and what tolerance really is with brilliant moments of humour. Not least, for example, in seeing the ex-Dirty Harry get so riled over a patch of grass and the fantastic, all too believable rite of passage in the hairdressers.
This is where we can’t get Clint’s career out of our mind. As the story gathers momentum and events take a darker tone, director and performer Eastwood skillfully play with our expectations, and the teenage boy becomes our represantative in that. From the music thorough to words, implications, preparations, [I’m trying hard to avoid a spoiler here], right up to the crucial moment, we all know what Dirty Harry, and so many other characters would have done. We’re expecting the same.
What we get may not be that surprising if we think about for a moment. That makes it no less the powerful. If Clint’s last few years of film making, perhaps from as far back as Unforgiven on, are seen by some as an attempt at atonement for the sins of a violent or amoral back-catalogue, then this is the pinnacle of that. Did he need to make such public amends? That is another debate, not least because we’re the ones who consumed the early films and encouraged their making.
Here, though, we have the most powerful and pertinent act of vengeance and grace possible. Walt gets justice for another in the same breath as he seeks atonement for himself. A picture speaks a thousand words.