Morality has long been a central theme to films that Clint Eastwood has directed. Unforgiven provided a new image of the western, and the men who had traditionally been featured as leads. With Million Dollar Baby, heartstrings were pulled by the conscious decisions made by Eastwood character, a tough but soulful boxing manager.
And now with Gran Torino, Eastwood brings us another morality play. Walt Kowalski is an old man out of touch with his family, his neighborhood, and his times, though a man for whom a traditional sense of standards and decency are the guiding principles in his life. Following the death of his wife, his children and church attempt to insert themselves into his life, a life for which both have had little place. Seemingly alone, by choice, Kowalski acts contented with a mix of cold beer, seething anger, and racial animosity to the Hmong neighbors who have come to populate his urban Detroit community.
But morality plays don't work without tests, and without character development, and without hubris. And Gran Torino has plenty of each. Over the course of an otherwise tranquil summer, Kowalski learns that racial divides are self imposed, that youth can learn from experience, and that danger lurks on just about every street corner.
Following a failed gang initiation rite, Kowalski aligns with his neighbor Thoa, a teenage boy drifting through life, hoping to avoid conflict and controversy. This pairing pits Kowalski and Thoa, seeming antagonists, up against the neighborhood toughs, and sets up the evolution, and healing, that Kowalski needs for his own spiritual salvation and peace of mind.
Though this film strains to show the subleties to Kowalski's existence, the loneliness, the alcohol consumption, the brusque asides, the mutterings, the sense of purpose, it fails to deliver on the full character of Walt Kowalski. Sure, there's a soft spot beneath the very rough exterior of this racist Korean War veteran. Yes, we learn by the film's dramatic conclusion what it is that has been eating at Walt for the duration of his adult life. Of course, Walt looks out for those less fortunate, or at least those he deems less fortunate. And he drops the offensive cultural references, or at least reduces them, by the time he sets out to resolve the outstanding issues that have directly impacted his neighbors, and puts a clear end to the tranquil summer. But why now. Why over such a short period of time. Why with the people he had previously detested, and ignored. Why not turn more to family when provided the opportunity. It's the thinking behind Walt Kowalski's actions that we're missing here, and in missing them we lost out on a lot more than what we get to see from Eastwood on screen.
Eastwood's performance certainly rates. The seething anger he carries is evident from the first shot on to the last. There is plenty of character development at play, and equal dollops of humor to go with the tense drama.
But it is also this wide range, from hard core drama about race and prejudice, life and the choices it presents, to the humor implicit in language, and custom, that render this film less than perfect. A few scenes condensed, a bit less of the slapstick humor, particularly when Kowalski takes Thoa to town to 'man him up', and this film would have had all the ingredients to become a modern classic.
During the moments when Gran Torino opens up to let in scenes that work well as comedy, it's easy to forget that we're dealing with a very serious drama before us. A change of life in characters before our eyes, with some ascending, is supposedly being told with humor, but it seems oddly out of place, and forced, in several scenes. It's not as if these scenes aren't funny, that the dialogue doesn't work, or that the contrasts are not amusing. It's just that they seem way out of place for where we are in the film, and how Kowalski would approach these situations if they weren't racing the clock to show his evolution.
In going too far with humor, and in a handful of scenes showing the old man Kowalski literally hanging out with his youthful neighbors, there's a question of whether these scenes were added late, or even why they weren't cut, for they diverge too much from both the pace and the progression that we have in this film. These scenes take an otherwise clean and even film and makes it too choppy, too uneven, too contrived.
By the end of Gran Torino, you have to stop and wonder whether you're watching Clint Eastwood as Walt Kowalski, or as Harry Callahan, all retired from the San Francisco Police Department after a career of killing criminals and dropping one liners, left to fend for himself in a racially tense Detroit neighborhood. From the constant growl to the short lines with a punchy delivery, and especially on to the vigilante justice that seems to be Kowalski's forte, it's dificult to not think this is a creative script incorporating Harry Callahan 30 years on from his heyday. Sort of a serious play on a contemporary film character, like Brando's Carmine Sabatini in The Freshman. But at the same time you're not sure, and you wonder whether this is just the way Eastwood decided to play Kowalski, as a terse, angry, hair trigger of an old man.
There's lots to like about Gran Torino. It strives, it reaches, but it also features too many jumps, and ultimately falls short as a potent tale of urban life. This is one that could have really nailed it, but came up a bit lacking, Eastwood's performance notwithstanding.