Monday, January 19, 2009

GRAN TORINO: MOVIE REVIEW


Cast: Clint Eastwood, Bee Vang, Christopher Carley, Ahney Her
Director: Clint Eastwood
Runtime: 117 min.
Rating: *****
Genre: Drama

        Ingrid Bergman sure is one, and Clint Eastwood sure is another. You get down to chalking the reasons why cinema was invented and these two names pop right out. There are very few experiences out there that might hold a candle to the sheer awe writ large on our faces when these two legends radiate everything around them. Ingrid Bergman represented everything that is so divine about a woman so much so that we feel the whole world around in that frame in love with her, including the furniture, the walls and the lights, which always seem to emit the exact amount of light so that we celebrate her beauty. And when Clint Eastwood is on screen, with that larger-than-life aura, we worship. Of all the great influences I have imbibed at the movies there has not been one that has been installed deeper than what everything that Clint Eastwood stands for. When someone as esteemed as Roger Ebert cites that he wants to grow up to be like Eastwood (Mr. Ebert is in 66), you don’t wonder what he is talking about. You say, who doesn’t?
        A sound wakes up the old man in the middle of the night. There’s a light flashing in his garage, where a 1972 Ford Gran Tarino rests. Son of a bitch, he growls, walks across the room, picks up his M1 Garand rifle, fills in rounds and walks across to the garage. He quietly opens the door, and thunders inside, aims his rifle at the thief and rocks the garage lamp hanging from the roof. He walks around to the thief, the gun pointing at the thief and the face behind having the fiercest set of squint eyes and the grittiest teeth of them all. The lamp is swinging and that face is moving between light and darkness. It is awe-inspiring imagery composed with breathtaking lighting, one right up there with anything that has been filmed all year. And the secret to Clint Eastwood is that he improvises with the scenery around.
        The man is one of cinema’s greatest artists ever, and one of its most precious shining jewels. And of all the actors whose work has relied on the aura principle (John Wayne, Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, Humphrey Bogart), there has not been one who understand and realize their iconographic presence we feel as an audience as deeply and as clearly as Eastwood does. It requires a great understanding of the art of cinema to capture first of all that kind of presence in every scene without falling into parody-goofy territory. Martin Scorsese did a terrific job in The Color of Money with Paul Newman. But Clint Eastwood goes beyond most filmmakers, almost all, because he has the cinematic understanding to not only capture but control and manipulate his every moment on screen in a way so as to directly influence that image we all have registered deep within us. And give us new ones to marvel at. There’s not a singular moment of imperfection I could register in Gran Torino, and it is as much a celebration of the Clint Eastwood of old as we could ever hope to have. It is a return of sorts for the man, and not since Unforgiven has there been such a masterpiece of filmmaking. I use the word masterpiece because I consider making us all feel that cool searing intensity in its entirety as one of cinema’s toughest challenges. Outside of Eastwood, only Don Siegel (Dirty Harry) and Sergio Leone (The Dollar trilogy) have managed that. Someone as Wolfgang Petersen failed (In the Line of Fire). Even Eastwood himself has (Bloodwork), and more than once.
        There’s another great scene late in the film, a masterpiece of how subtle lighting and subtle shifts in angle and subtle motions of camera can affect us. The old man is sitting on the couch, contemplating on the tragedy that has just occurred, and there is only sparse low-key lighting provided by the table shades. He has just finished smashing the panes on the kitchen racks in a fit of rage, and his knuckles are bruised. The tragedy has completely overwhelmed us, and if it were any other time, any other film, or any other character and had we been pushed straight into action driven by that rage, we wouldn’t have felt a thing and would have applauded. But Eastwood here chooses to ease for a moment, and take a toll of things. He is alone there in the dark, and a little tear finally escapes. A character walks in and tries to talk to him, and here look how the scene flows. How good the acting is from Eastwood. Look how, in an Eastwood scene, when tuned to the Dirty Harry mode is all about him, and everything around is merely in his service. Pay attention to those eyes, and to the voice. I am reminded of that magnificent scene from Unforgiven, where Little Sue sitting on a horse is recounting to Munny (Eastwood) how Little Bill (Gene Hackman) mentioned that he was William Munny from Missouri and that he had killed women and children and all. William Munny is listening to it all cold-blooded, staring into the open space and drinking. The shot is from her angle, up on a horse looking down, kind of like a reverse dutch-angle, and it is surely one of the greatest scenes in cinema history encompassing every thing about Clint Eastwood – the man, the legend, the icon, his films, his characters and the entire western genre. The scene here in Gran Torino would have been just as iconic had the editing climbed down a bit, and focused squarely on Eastwood, and only occasionally cut to the other character. But then, there’s more at work here.
        Eastwood is Walt Kowalski, a Korean war veteran, and a disgruntled old man. He hates everything in sight and abuses everything that is not American – from people to Toyota SUVs. A whole book could be made out of the adjectives and slurs he uses against Asians, blacks and every other non-American race. He is much like Ethan Edwards from The Searchers, a man beyond salvage. In a certain way he is the quintessential male, not a liberal pandering to everybody’s opinion but a man who says what he believes in and doesn’t hold opinions close to his chest. The community he is living in has been encroached by members of the Hmong community, and one day a boy from this neighborhood tries to steal his Gran Torino. What happens afterwards is something I believe I should not reveal, even if I have described only the first few minutes of the premise. One of the great pleasures of Gran Torino is the surprising manner in which unfolds. It is a film where Eastwood plays with his image more than ever before, and lends it a crescendo we have long sought. It is an ending that might seem contrived, and I have nothing to say about that.
        Eastwood’s performance is more than worthy of its place as a stage in the evolution of his characters – The Man with No Name, Harry Callaghan, The Mythic Unknown from High Plains Drifter, William Munny, Frankie Dunn. Much of the film is spent floating around that face of his. And it is an astonishing sight, like watching a monument that has stood against everything that time has thrown at it. He growls, he snarls, and he pukes at everything in its face. And often he points a finger at it and tries to nail it. He gradually opens up, from a grumpy sight to one capable of emotion, and when he smiles at somebody it feels earned. If he never would act again, as he says now, I say with a devastated heart and tears fighting hard to escape, I couldn’t have asked for a better farewell.
        Eastwood has created an unassuming masterpiece of genre here, and in its washed-out sleepy urban color palette, he renders as much a Western town as anybody could hope for. The antagonists are new, gangbangers and ruffians, and the film quietly assumes a nostalgic tone too, throwing at them the last of a dying species. Along with him is his Gran Torino, a product of a time when the company would produce cars people actually bought. It no longer does, and no longer do we see that mythic larger than life hero walking down all alone, someone you shouldn’t be messing with. And if this indeed is Eastwood’s last performance, God bless him. And God bless himself for bringing him into our lives.

2 comments:

Srikanth said...

It is fascinating to see how eastwood has created a truly anti-racist film without much ado about it. He says "Look we all are from different countries. Why all the finicky formalities?" Really a surprise comeback after the dud Changeling.

Srikanth said...

Ya and the "finger-gun" he does is vintage stuff. Thank ya Eastwood!