Gran Torino (2008) dir. Clint Eastwood
Starring: Clint Eastwood, Ahney Her, Bee Vang, Christopher Carley
Clint Eastwood’s second release of year reminds me of the year he made the two Iwo Jima films. The first one “Flags of Our Fathers” crumbled from it’s myriad of flashbacks and multiple storylines, but the second film, the much better “Letters from Iwo Jima” benefited from a compacted and manageable point of view on the same story.
After seeing “the Changling” earlier this year which was another ambitious and sloppy potboiler, it appears “Gran Torino” could be a similar ‘reaction’ film.
Torino is indeed what Eastwood does best, small intimate stories about ordinary accessible characters. Eastwood plays Walt Kowalski, an elderly Korean War vet, widower and all around curmudgeon who’s revels in negativity. He hates his family, the political correctness of the world and especially his neighbourhood which is populated with more and more Asians.
Concerted efforts of his kindly young Asian neighbour Sue Lor (Ahney Her) to talk to him eventually cracks his shell just enough to become friends. As Sue and Walt get to know each other more he takes on her young brother Thao (Bee Vang) as a surrogate son, who is fatherless and without a positive role model. Thao is constantly bullied and pressured by his gangster friends, but when violence turns against Thao Walt becomes the neighbourhood’s protector with Dirty Harry-like attitude.
“Gran Torino” feels like a Western in suburbia. I’ve been watching the great Budd Boetticher films lately and there’s a similar simplification of conflict. For good and bad characters are brought down to base characterizations – Thao as the emasculated orphan looking for a father figure, Walt as the old loner and reluctant mentor, the Asian gangsters as, well… nothing but evil, and the well meaning priest who watches everything play out and tries to prevent the inevitable. All other complexities of life are distilled away. Like a lawless Western town interaction with the police is minimized, leaving only good, evil, revenge, redemption, sacrifice and a community code of honour to uphold.
The first act provides us with a comedic tone, a side to Eastwood we rarely see. The gags derive from Walt's strangely lovable old man racial predilections. He continually refers to Asians with every epithet under the sun, but we don't think it's malicious because he even refers to best friends as the ugly wop or the drunken mick. When mixed with tragic tones Walt's racism comes off as a defense mechanism, disguising the genuine goodness he wants to express. Unfortunately the racism gets old fast, the second and third acts continue to repeat same scenes and same gags. We get it Clint, you hate everybody, yet every scene reinforces this excessively. When we hear zipperhead for the fourth time 90mins into the film, it's just not necessary.
Unfortunately this simple and touching story is hampered by some truly atrocious acting by most of his supporting actors. In the roles of Thao and Sue, Eastwood casts two absolute newbies to acting. I looked on IMDB afterwards and neither Ahney Her nor Bee Vang have any other credits. Much of the drama of the key scenes are lost by their inability bring even the most fundamental acting chops to the screen. Bad casting goes beyond the youths though, Christopher Carley looks too strange as the young priest and Brian Haley as Walt’s son can't act out of the 2-dimensional clichés he's given. Even the two nameless cops who appear near the end can't read their simple lines right.
Like “The Unforgiven” “Torino” questions the long term effects of violence on those that use it. The film hides a secret in Walt’s character until the end. And when he confesses to Thao in a clever metaphorical way this reconciles his internal pain. It’s a dramatic moment, but unfortunately we are distracted from this moment by the bad acting from his youngsters on screen.