First and foremost, Clint Eastwood is a BAMF. In his third film as a director (High Plains Drifter), he kills three people from a barber chair, commits rape, and is basically elected mayor while secretly playing a ghost. After a sojourn from contributing to his image as a BAMF he returns in his self-directed film, Gran Torino.
In response to gang pressures, Eastwoodâ€™s Hmong teenage neighbor tries to steal his prized possession (obviously a Gran Torino). He reluctantly reforms the teen, they bond and from there ensues the usual plot dynamics of man overcoming prejudices as unlikely people forge a life-long friendship, etc. Although, hackneyed plot patterns like this can drive a film to mediocrity (i.e. the collaborative efforts of Jerry Bruckheimer and Michael Bay). The plot of the Hmong teen is necessary to get the film to where it has to go, which is to explore and resolve Eastwoodâ€™s characterâ€™s lifelong events during the Korean War. Eastwoodâ€™s friendship with the kid then becomes a surrogate penitence for his prior sin.
Eastwood doesnâ€™t just carry the film, his persona is the film. He plays Walt Kowalski, a laconic, hard-boiled, Korean war veteran and retired Detroit auto worker. (In this way it is clear the film will envelope the landscape of the blue collar ethic, and explores parts of that psyche.) His demeanor of a brewing anger held in weakly â€” by social etiquette â€” is not unlike his similarly hard-boiled character from the Dirty Harry series. For him, slurs such as â€œgookâ€ and â€œspookâ€ emanate with the casualness of â€œhelloâ€ or â€œgoodbye.â€ This mannerism becomes salient and intrinsic to Kowalskiâ€™s identity.
Kowalski fucks people up without having to fuck people up (although he occasionally does fuck people up with his call-it-like-he seeâ€™s-it way, which is similar to a racist grandpa who describes people as â€œnegroesâ€ and still thinks itâ€™s still segregated 1945). His menace is not unlike that of Daniel Plainview confronting Rev. Sunday (There Will Be Blood), but is less violent and more intimidation based. This attitude of intimidation without violence drives the scenes of several altercations where he tries to protect the Hmong denizens of his neighborhood from â€œtroublemakersâ€ with gestures like pointing his hand like a gun and shooting imaginary bullets, a major stylistic motif of the film.
This film is not merely a character study; it is a social commentary on America and its sense of guardianship of those victimized by brutal forces. But that meaning does not suspend in mid-air without any character or plot derivation (also like any mediocre film, consult Armageddon for further reference). Whatever meaning the film explores about America results from Kowalski and his own inner demons.
In placing the film in the context of Eastwoodâ€™s career I would put it below Unforgiven and Million Dollar Baby, but miles ahead of Blood Work because I and society in general probably try to pretend a movie with Jeff Daniels as a serial killer doesnâ€™t exist, which is probably for the best.
Clint Eastwood will receive the Modern Master Award at the upcoming 24th Annual Santa Barbara International Film Festival. The award, established in 1995, honors individuals who enrich culture through accomplishments in the motion picture industry.