Monday, August 09, 2010

Watched: Gran Torino

Clint Eastwood stars in this self-directed movie, as the owner of the car which all the fuss is about. He is Walt Kowalski, a grizzly old widower and war-veteran whose whole identity seems shaped by his war experiences. Living alone with his sweet Labrador, Daisy, he spends his time tinkering around the house with his impressive tool kits and snarling at his neighbors.


Slowly, though, he starts becoming involved with the lives of his young neighbors, Tao and Sue, who happen to be from the Hmong community. The boy, Tao, tries to steal Walt’s prized Gran Torino one night- Walt thwarts the attempt in characteristic tough-guy style. Then the boy is forced by his family to apologize to Walt and to offer free labor around the house as a way to make restitution. Walt grudgingly accepts, and then develops a prickly, yet sweet and supportive role in the diffident young Tao’s life. He becomes Tao’s protector from the Hmong gang who try to indoctrinate Tao into their fold. Side by side, Walt becomes friendly with Tao’s sprightly sister, Sue, who makes fun of Walt and does things like call him ‘Wally’ ('don’t call me Wally,’ he growls) and drag him to her family barbecue.

But then things turn ugly and violent with the repeated intimidation of Tao by the Hmong gang. Walt’s role as the protector and avenger is the meat of the story and the crux of the ending. The car itself, the majestic Gran Torino, which features richly in the ending, is mainly a symbol. Of what, I wasn’t terribly clear. Old-time values like honor and integrity, which Walt lives by? The spirit of Americana in an increasingly multi-cultured land? The value of workmanship (given that it is a US-made car and this story is set in Michigan) and pride in one’s own abilities? I suppose it was a combination of all this.

Eastwood’s directorial touch is evident in his spare handling of themes like identity and power- the movie is devoid of nonsensical melodrama but that is precisely the hook of the more emotional scenes. Street thuggery, adolescent posturing and esteem issues, cultural mores, and finally, criminal violence- they are all there in their unvarnished reality. There is also a sort of remarkable good-natured grumpiness in Walt’s character even as he hurls epithets like ‘zipper head’ and, in one memorable instance, ‘eggroll’ at his Hmong neighbors. His poor health and lonely heart are painfully evident, even as he goes through life with genuine toughness and toil.

And this is where I rather admire the dude- his screen self, Walt, but also Eastwood himself. He is what, eighty? I wonder if I will even bother getting out of my pajamas at that age. And here he is, grandly producing finely-rendered stories that go on to win accolades and stick in people’s heads. (Note to self- Must watch Million Dollar Baby). Finally, I must mention the beautiful song, Gran Torino, which is performed during the end-credits by one Jamie Cullum. Lacking any embellishment, but full of soul- just like the movie.



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