I have to confess that it is getting harder and harder to write about Clint Eastwood films, at least the really good ones, probably because nobody seems to have told Clint Eastwood that auteur theory is pretty much dead these days. I say this because by now, I think it is evident what will be good about a film directed by Clint Eastwood when it escapes the pitfalls of some of his efforts. More often than not, you will get a story which considers the complexities of violence, mortality and the director’s own status as an icon of toughened masculinity. The film will be deliberate, artful and filled with pauses and spaces which offer as much or more than that which surrounds it. Often times, the character is more archetype than individual, standing as a spirit which propels and comments on the world it inherits. Not quite human, these men are often mythic emblems of singular forces within the greater human experience. Like many great films and filmmakers, the work defies the coarseness of the genre which spawned it.
With Gran Torino, it’s been mixed up a little. Walter (Clint Eastwood) is cut from the same hard leather of many characters, but this tough guy is fundamentally expressive. He finds it very easy to wander around and spout off his racist opinions about the Hmong family who live next door. There is no shortage of words. No enigma about his feelings about his transitional neighborhood, new immigrants or how his working class ethos fits into the city around him. Like other characters, he not hesitant to draw a gun and has done so many times in the past. He’s even killed a few folks. Most of which were Korean, a distinction which is mostly lost behind his generic racist one-liners and goad-getting.
It’s no real surprise that Walter gets closer to the family next door as the crisis around them deepens, (This is almost cliché’ material; “grumpy old racist discovers minority group isn’t so bad after all”, a “Driving Miss Daisy” for the guns, gears and girls set.) the suspense builds upon expectations of what could or should happen. A few scenes intentionally recall “Unforgiven” to reinforce this building shadow of potential violence. Will he turn his racist fury against a target he feels justified in destroying? Will he show Thao the final stage in being a “guy” is taking matters of force into your own hands? The audience is smart enough to know that he won’t turn his back on the family and he won’t die in the second reel, so what choice does that really leave Walter the character and Eastwood the director? In the sub-genre of Eastwood films, they’ve both become locked into a trajectory which is familiar and expected. This is an expectation which the filmmakers wisely subvert as they unveil Walter’s well-considered plan for retaliation against the gang which threatens Thao and his family.
While there is certainly much fodder for debate, discussion in criticism in this film which is more or less about an old white guy who helps a struggling minority group solve their own problems, this doesn’t strike me as being a weakness in the film as much as it is a weakness in the culture which produced it. If there are structural problems within the film, I’d point to the ease of the reversals and revelations which Walter discovers about his world. He hates Asians, but finds himself being a better father to Thao than his own sons. He hates god, church and all of it, but finds himself moving closer and closer to the deepest crux of Christian beliefs. Sure, this is character growth, but the rendering here feels too flat for a director who’s work has always reveled in the grey areas between moral choices. While some of this is a matter of script, in would certainly be within Eastwood’s capabilities as a director to add a little hint of uncertainty in the decisions which Walt makes.
A hint of doubt, perhaps.