14 June 2009

Gran Torino

Man, Delta has seriously classed up the in-flight entertainment service. You can build your own playlist from a database of cds (including an album of Rare and Unreleased Aretha Franklin that is fantastic), watch a bunch of different HBO shows (for $2 a pop) and pick from a bunch of complimentary recent movies, to start and stop as you please. I was happy to see Gran Torino on the list - I'd been sort of half wanting to see it, but figured that it was probably not so good - ie, perfect airplane movie. So, for the first 3/4 of the movie I was utterly charmed. It's a kind of unlikely friendship story, Clint Eastwood playing a curmudgeonly old man (he literally tells the kids to get off his lawn) with a cartoonishly atrocious family who befriends two Hmong teenagers living next door. I think it was Christopher Orr (one of my favorite movie reviewers) who said that the first 3/4 of the film are like the good old Dirty Harry days, with cheesy lines and grumpy sentimentality. Eastwood voices his inner monologue non-stop, which is great. I can't wait to be old and cranky and talking to myself. It's a grand time. The last 1/4 however, takes a serious, non-grumpy sentimental turn, which Orr said pretty much ruined the movie. I wouldn't go that far. Certainly, the last 1/4 of the film is less pleasant to watch, and lays the nobility, heroism and tearjerker stuff on pretty thick. The comedy pretty much disappears. But it wasn't quite as annoying as I expected. Still, ultimately, it's not a great movie. The plot is a bit inconsistent - Eastwood is alternately a raging badass and a weak old man, complete with my favorite illness of all time***. And then there's the racism aspect, which is, hmmm.

So, at the opening of the movie, we are given repeated clues that Eastwood is a racist. He uses racial slurs nonstop, complains about living next door to Asians, etc. But as the movie progresses, it seems to want to persuade us that he's not really racist, he just, you know, uses slurs all the time. And as proof, he continues to use them even after he and the Hmong kids become friends, lovingly referring to them by all kinds of appalling appellations. To drive the point home, we get lots of scenes of Eastwood hanging out with his friends - and they all call each other by racist slurs too! As if to say, see guys! It's totally ok!

I have really mixed feelings about this. I mean, I have plenty of friends who use racist/homophobic slurs casually, or in jest. But they use the words as empty signifiers really - the terms have been essentially vacated of meaning, and they'd certainly never use them to insult someone who the term actually applied to. Now whether or not that's justifiable is one question, but the Eastwood case is slightly different, in that he also uses the terms in anger, or as an insult. So it's a trickier case. I mean, I imagine it's actually a fairly realistic depiction of how a lot of people use terms like that. And I don't think the movie is actually excusing it. It just, I dunno, I guess it's an odd aspect of the film to me.

So there's also the question of the movie's politics, which are really strange too. Eastwood initially befriends the neighbors because he steps in one night when there's a conflict between them and a local gang. He threatens them, they go away and vow revenge. Things escalate, and ultimately, there's this whole question of whether or not Eastwood is gonna kill the gang members. I don't want to totally give it away, but basically, at the end of the movie he basically delivers them to the police. It's really kind of strange, because the film spends most of its time basically advocating vigilante justice, and then ultimately seems to say that it doesn't really work, and that ultimately the law is the best solution. There's also this curious emphasis on the medal of honor he received in the military, which on the one hand seems to emphasize this rule of law message, but on the other hand is problematized by the fact that he says that he received it for doing something he spent every day of his life regretting. So is the movie trying to redeem what he did then as well?
The film also seems to implicitly be a plug for Catholicism, which is even more strange - maybe he's trying to get in good with the Church after the whole Million Dollars Baby debacle? There's this whole side-plot about the local priest trying to talk to Eastwood and bring him into the fold, which Eastwood of course adamantly refuses to do. So he ultimately does go to confession - but doesn't actually confess his major crime, just some of the other things he's done that still bother him (which are actually kind of interesting). And he does seem to get some kind of comfort from religion by the end of the movie, which is also a bit odd. Finally, while he earlier tells the priest that he doesn't know shit, but the end, he seems to acknowledge his wisdom. It's rather inconsistent and out of character, and is part of what makes the later part of the movie so crappy.

 Man, it's a weird movie, message wise. In this, it plays into the generally odd trajectory of Eastwood's political project as a filmmaker - see this fascinating article for more on that. The oddity of the ending, by the way, is only emphasized by the closing song - Clint Eastwood crooning some lounge bit about a gran torino. I'm not kidding.

Anyways, so yeah. Entertaining for awhile, but then kind of peters out into highflown drama. Not a bad movie to catch on tv, but I can't really say it's worth renting.

***I star it because I suppose it could be considered a spoiler, and I'm trying to be conscientious about those - but seriously! TB! I love how TB is always represented in the exact same way - a series of coughs and then a shot of the bloody white hanky. Why did they give Eastwood the 18th century diva disease? I LOVE IT.


Nick said...

It would seem Delta and United both have amped up their entertainment. I too saw Gran Torino on my flight to South America. Pretty much same reaction as you. It was kind of hokey but entertaining nonetheless.

Rob said...

Having read the beginning of your review this morning, I jumped all over the opportunity to watch it tonight.

I can't believe you didn't mention the HORRIBLE acting by pretty much everyone but Eastwood. It totally made the movie for me.

That said, I can't believe you didn't love it. To me, it was awesome through and through. I feel like I really got to know the real Clint Eastwood watching it. And, oh my god, the special features on the DVD! Did you get to see them on the flight? They're, like, an almost insulting brief introduction to the concept of a "car culture" in America. Totally appropriate for maybe children and others completely unfamiliar with any Americans and/or American media, but otherwise... Man...

Anyway, no, it's not a "good" movie. Fair enough. But awesome? Oh, definitely.

culture_vulture said...

No special features, though honestly, I rarely check those out anyhow.

I didn't really notice the terrible acting? Who were you thinking of? And with such terrible dialogue, are you sure it's the actor's fault? Actually, I guess his family - all of them are pretty terribly acted.

I think my capacity for ironic appreciation is greatly diminished on an 8 hour flight. Also, the rape aftermath scene just really, really disturbed me, and I really feel like if you're gonna show something that horrific, you better have a good payoff, which this movie didn't.

Anonymous said...

I would just like to say that it probably wasn't TB. A senior, nam vet who presents with haemoptysis AND has sought medical attention for the condition? This suggests lung cancer to me.