Gran Torino (2008): Looking Closer’s Film Forum

Gran Torino (2008): Looking Closer’s Film Forum January 21, 2009

I haven’t seen Gran Torino yet.

Normally, I would rush out to see a Clint Eastwood movie. But I’ve been insanely busy the last several weeks, and I’ve had to choose my movies very, very carefully, so I’d be sure to pick a winner. So I started paying attention to what I read.

I must say, I was alarmed when film critic Mike D’Angelo posted this on Twitter:

Never have I seen a film as blatantly stupid as GRAN TORINO taken so seriously by so many non-idiots.

I wasn’t sure whether I should pay attention to a comment like that.

But then, one of my favorite film critics, Michael Sicinski, wrote:

Eastwood’s gentle pacing always lends projects such as these a dignity they barely deserve, and Gran Torino is the worst offender in quite a long time. The script is preposterous.Beyond that, I have nothing to say about this film.

Then, other critics whose perspectives I respect began lining up with reviews or comments that echoed these sentiments. And I must say, Gran Torino was suddenly not quite so high on my must-see list.

Here are a few of those voices:

Victor Morton:

I was impressed — in a sense. I thoroughly enjoyed myself laughing at one of the worst screenplays I’ve ever seen and one of the worst performances by a professional actor … rrrrrrr … I’ve ever seen.

Ron Reed:

If I were running a screenwriting program, and GRAN TORINO was submitted by someone applying for admission, I’d be very excited. “It’s a mess, but I love what the guy’s going for. Tons of potential.” If this script was submitted by someone as their graduating project, I’d flunk them.

I’m fascinated by the same themes that fascinate this guy (and Clint Eastwood) – violence and non-violence, revenge and forgiveness, justice, sacrifice. In fact, with respect to the last on the list, I’d be very surprised if the screenwriter isn’t a Christian.

But the script is so flawed, so amateur in execution, I truly can’t believe it got made without extensive rewrites. Honestly, the whole story it tells is just fine. But the telling of that story has every beginner weakness there is.

Ken Morefield:

Gran Torino is a bad film, yes, but at least it has the decency to be an exquisitely bad film of the type you can enjoy if you can get your head in the right place, see it with a few buddies, and one-up one another in deriding plot holes and predicting developments. (Give your self one point if you correctly predicted Clint would say confession in the second half of the film, two if you correctly predicted it would be in the penultimate scene, and three if at the appropriate time you turned to the person you were sitting next to and said, “This would be a really good place for a montage.”)

I said to my friend Peter (a.k.a. Smokey Burner) after the film–and it’s imperative that you understand that I am absolutely, positively in earnest–that as bad as the film was, it would have been perfect with two small changes:

a) The addition of a Predator.
b) If the dog could talk (or at the minimum do a voice-over narration).

Before I explain, let me just say that I think it is Eastwood’s presence that ultimately causes the film to implode. This is a shame, really, because if the film had starred Steven Seagal, Mark Wahlberg, or Vin Diesel, it could have gone straight to video as a Death Wish reboot without having to add all the Jesus imagery the only point of which seems to be to make you wonder if Gus Van Sant somehow decided to do a shot by shot remake of Unforgiven only to have a sly intern slip in pages of The Karate Kid to see if he would notice:

“What’s it like to kill a man?”
“It’s horrible; you take everything he ever has or will have. Now show me wax the car…”

Christian Hamaker:

This religious dialogue in the film is somewhat stimulating, but ultimately disappointing. … Eastwood seems to be more interested in posing—in one case, quite literally—as a Christ figure in Gran Torino, presenting themes of regret and redemption in large letters. However, the religious connections are forced and heavy-handed, unlike the far superior Changeling, where the Christian themes of justice and hope, although outwardly embodied by a man of the cloth, were delivered with more grace and power.

Weaker still is the story of Thao, Kowalski’s harassed neighbor. The young man broods effectively, but every time he opens his mouth, another stilted line ushers forth. Vang simply isn’t a very good actor, and his performance hurts the film.

Nevertheless, Gran Torino works fairly well as mainstream entertainment. It gives audiences a loveable rascal in Eastwood’s character, and allows a flawed, racist man to be the instrument of change in the life of a young man in need of direction. It also shows the lengths to which a man might go for his friends—a theme that, again, is more artfully presented in Changeling, but which is not without power here.

Readers are cautioned that the racial epithets and language in Gran Torino are distasteful, and that the movie, even with its explicit religious angle, feels warmed over. There’s not much beyond Eastwood’s enjoyable performance to recommend the film, but watching the actor give one more memorable performance may be enough for Eastwood’s fans.

But not all of my favorite critics disliked it.

Brett McCracken:

Gran Torino is surprisingly earnest—a film that is funny and angry and sad for all the right reasons, and remarkably well timed. As 2008 comes to close—and with it many things—Gran Torino captures the zeitgeist as eloquently as anything possibly could.

Andrew Sarris:

Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino… caps his career as both a director and an actor with his portrayal of a heroically redeemed bigot of such humanity and luminosity as to exhaust my supply of superlatives.

Stephanie Zacharek:

[U]ntil Gran Torino starts rumbling headlong toward its tone-deaf, self-serious ending… it’s often enjoyable, satisfying and funny.

David Edelstein:

The movie is ludicrous, but Eastwood’s consistency is poignant. He has an agenda and sticks to it.

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  • I have a hard time stomaching some of the things said about this movie. I mean, I couldn’t tell you how well executed the directing was or the cinematography or anything like that (and I think a lot of people who claim to tell us, really don’t have any understanding of it themselves). What I can tell you is, that this Eastwood film was the most wholly satisfying film since Unforgiven. I went into this movie thinking that Eastwood was going to be an older Dirty Harry and kick the asses of a bunch of young punks. However, that doesn’t happen. Matter of fact, the conclusion is more in line with what I think justice really is. Not just vengeance, or retribution, or vigilantism, but something more powerful and more meaningful than all of that. I have never thought of Eastwood as a wonderful actor, but he is good at playing the Dirty Harry roles…and that is why I think this movie is so surprising to me. He isn’t that character. He is a man with remorse, fear, hatred, and other normal human qualities. He is a man stuck between living and dying, faith and doubt, love and hate. And I don’t think I have laughed that hard at a movie in a long time. I understand that the amount of racial slurs might have seemed cumbersome but isn’t that the way some of these older “greatest generation” people are? I have known a couple that were not far from Eastwood’s character…so it resonated with me…and it made me understand some of the possible reasons why people like this hid behind these fears and hatreds. I think this film brought about a more serious and sober discussion of racism than anything that Spike Lee could have written. I am just a lowly history grad student who loves films and I got two lessons from this movie that I think were well applied. First, sacrifice is where love is shown and that when I get to be Eastwood’s age, I hope that I don’t internalize all of my bitterness and hatred for the way my life turned out (whether it be in my control or not). In the end I thought, “this portrayal is not how I want to live, but I could only hope to die with such selflessness and purpose.”

  • I liked Gran Torino and didn’t want to. In the first act I was shaking my head at the ham-fisted delivery of the story’s themes, but by the end I found myself drawn in and engaged with the characters, not least of all Clint Eastwood, who plays a racist, two-dimensional version of himself (one is tempted to say, as usual).

    What startled me was how in-tune the film is to immigration in the States and the fact that angry white men (like Clint’s old curmudgeon) are being replaced by angry young men of mixed races. I would think this was accidental but for the scene where he visits his doctor, only to discover the white man has been replaced by an Asian woman: this brief scene hammers home a theme that seems to be entirely overlooked in reviews, that we are not only keeping company with immigrants but being cared for them as well. With this in mind, the film’s conclusion is a very measured statement of irony that is rarely seen in US cinema.

  • Claire

    For a fistful of dollars I had the pleasure of watching Clint Eastwood play yet another grimacing, simmering cowboy with a heart for the vulnerable people in his territory. I really haven’t grown to expect complex performances from the king of spaghetti. Still, I have a fondness for both the Hmong people and a well-built 1970s Ford (my dad had a yellow Gran Torino in 1972). I enjoyed the rather obvious plug for the Hmong…”Hmong isn’t a place, it’s a people.” It took me back to my community college multicultural awareness classes. Since I don’t have “gran” expectations of Eastwood’s acting, but rather appreciate his iconic status, I was able to enjoy his performance for what it is and ever was.

    I was disturbed by a few things. First, the racial slurs were frustratingly thick and overdone – so much so, that a few of my fellow moviegoers seemed to think they were meant for cheap laughs (said moviegoers willingly obliged – and loudly). arg. Second, the whole sin/confession/redemption cycle left me feeling really sad. Initially, I was relieved that the clergy fared alright in this film, even if rendered ineffective and simplistic – at least the priest wasn’t a predator. But the concept of sin was whitewashed and anemic, as though sin could be understood as discrete packets of wrongdoing that hurting people occasionally deposit on their loved one’s lawns. Walt could list his lifetime of “sins” on one hand – the worst one being his emotional rejection of his sons. Once he confessed this to the priest, he felt free to offer substitutionary atonement for his Hmong neighbors…to buy their freedom from gang violence. But what of his own sons? Boys in man skin who were hurting and wounded by their emotionally inaccessible father? They weren’t given a chance at reconciliation. I was left feeling really dissatisfied by this story. I wanted hope of healing for Walt’s sons, instead of the bitterness that he bequeathed to them.

  • Previous poster wrote: “This may sound petty, or stereotypical, but he didn’t seem like a retired Polish autoworker to me. I’m not sure what I would suspect for a retired gentleman named Walk Kowalski, but it’s not Clint Eastwood.”

    Yes, it does sound stereotypical.

    In any case, Clint Eastwood in “Gran Torino” was a perfect retired auto worker, Polish American, Walt Kowalski.

  • My feeling when I left the theater:

    Great story!!!
    Horrible execution!!!

    Agree that the script, the performances, the directorial choices were fairly abysmal. Alarming so, considering what Clint CAN do. If this story had been given TLC…better casting, a major rewrite, and maybe not Clint directing himself…it could have been great. Boo.

  • Chris

    I’m also interested in what you think after seeing it. I read several quite positive reviews and was ready to see a significant film.

    I liked the film overall and came away from it moved, esp. w/ how the film ended.

    But my opinion of lessened as days went by. This may sound petty, or stereotypical, but he didn’t seem like a retired Polish autoworker to me. I’m not sure what I would suspect for a retired gentleman named Walk Kowalski, but it’s not Clint Eastwood. And the Grrrrrs he keeps saying, beginning at his wife’s funeral, seemed really silly. And the young priest accepting a beer–“I’d love one” –hoo hoo, now we know he’s really gone through it, now that he’s moving away from his prissy Diet Coke.

    Still, Ahney Her was such a delight as the Hmong neighbor girl. OK, her explanations of Hmong culture were a bit forced, but you could watch her all day.

    So, my take–interesting to watch, but thin and disappointing as well. I’m surprised by reviews in places such as the Onion’s AV club that praised it as much as they did.

  • Jeffrey, I’m interested to know your opinion once you’ve had a chance to see Gran Torino.

    I admit, I am firmly in the naysaying camp, despite the fact that I haven’t seen the film yet. The reason is that, from the first moments of the first time I saw the trailer, I gasped out loud (in a theater), and whispered fiercely to my wife, “This CAN’t be serious, can it?” It just seemed that ludicrous to me, that hokey. It looked to be a half-baked feel good remake with a one-note performance from a cardboard old grump. I couldn’t imagine that Eastwood would try do two films in a year again, and definitely not a second one that was even goofier than Changeling. So I admit, it’s surprised me quite a bit to see anyone saying anything good about the film.

    All this to say, I’m eager to discover if you find anything more…do share!

  • I just wrote up a short impression of The Visitor before reading this collection of negative quotes about Gran Torino. What’s funny is that I love Gran Torino, but I’ve dismissed The Visitor for many of the same reasons that critics have dismissed Gran Torino, especially as regards the screenplay. I just think that the Torino screenplay is much smarter and Eastwood has the balls AND the clout to pull it off successfully. Parts were certainly obvious, but they were always enjoyable. Please do go see it.