Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Gran Torino / **** (R)

Walt Kowalski: Clint Eastwood
Thao Van Lor: Bee Vang
Sue Lor: Ahney Her
Father Janovich: Christopher Carley
Barber Martin: John Carroll Lynch

Warner Bros. Pictures presents a film directed by Clint Eastwood. Written by Nick Schenk and Dave Johannson. Running time: 116 min. Rated R (for language throughout, and some violence).

There is a scene late in Clint Eastwood’s new movie “Gran Torino” where Eastwood’s character offers his priest a beer. The two men haven’t seen eye to eye but have come together after a tragedy, both upset about what has happened. Not only does the priest say that he would very much like a beer, but there is something in the priest’s gesture to grab two beers for each of them out of the cooler that speaks to the deep connections people can make with the most unlikely of companions when it is necessary in life.

Eastwood himself has played a priest in one of his own movies before, but the characters in his later films are nothing like the fantasy savior/devil roles that occupied Eastwood’s westerns “Pale Rider” and “High Plains Drifter”. In his movies, “Mystic River”, “Million Dollar Baby”, and now “Gran Torino”, his protagonists quietly consider their lives as if they are searching for some truth, something missed by most, some form of happiness that eludes them. They aren’t so far from those western archetypes. They are all driven by the need to do what is right, no matter the cost.

Walt—played by Eastwood—is a man with a lot of wrong in his life. His wife from a lifelong marriage has just passed away. His children neither understand him, nor appreciate him. He does little to earn any love from them. He is a bigot who pushes everyone in his life away, including his wife’s priest who is determined to fulfill a promise to the deceased to get Walt to confess his sins.

Walt is the last remaining white person in his neighborhood, which has become a Hmong community. He grumbles to himself about how it’s gone downhill as he observes the house of his next-door neighbor, the home of a boy named Thao (Bee Vang). Thao seems to be a bit of a pansy, living in a house populated by women, doing the “women’s work” of planting flowers and washing dishes. His sister Sue (Ahney Her) is tougher and more outgoing, and reaches out to Walt on his level.

Thao is being pressured by one of his cousins to join his gang. He isn’t interested but is eventually forced into an initiation. The initiation is to steal Walt’s mint condition ’72 Gran Torino. Eastwood does a wonderful job of creating tension through confrontations between the gang members and Walt. Using an assault rifle from his days in the Korean War, Walt forces the gang away from Thao on his front lawn one evening. Earlier when Thao attempts to steal the car, Eastwood has you wondering whether he might actually pull the trigger on the troubled boy.

Instead, he takes the youth under his arm—albeit reluctantly—and teaches him to respect himself through laborious work. First, by having the boy clean up the house across the street, then by getting him a real job. Of course, that makes it sound like some cliché story where the elder teaches the younger how to live life and the kid teaches the man to lighten up; but these people are looking for something deeper than simply understanding each other and getting past their prejudices. There is a deeper understanding of what it is to be human, and the sacrifices and compromises necessary to live a good life. Nothing is so simple as just getting along. There are more barriers in life than the ones that are obvious.

I think Eastwood’s understanding of this is why he does such a good job providing strong, well-rounded religious representation in his movies. Like “Million Dollar Baby”, “Gran Torino” is one of the rare modern movies that depicts the church in a positive light with the character of Father Janovich (Christopher Carley, “Lions for Lambs”). The priest is always reasonable and approaches Walt with respect, even though Walt doesn’t always treat him with the same dignity. Janovich never dismisses Walt simply as a non-believer. Janovich truly lives his beliefs of good will toward men. He is deeply concerned about Walt and the Hmong gang kids that he tries with such determination to help. But he never pretends to know all the answers. He’s in the same boat as everyone else.

The inclusion of the priests in both this film and “Million Dollar Baby” is also a clue as to what these movies are really about. In neither case is the protagonist a particularly religious soul, but both men are searching desperately for answers they haven’t been able to find throughout long and eventful lives. Neither film preaches any sort of religious philosophy, but they seem to be asking the same questions that anyone who is serious about religion wants the answers to. Why are we here? How are we supposed to get along in a world filled with so much hate? For what purpose have we all been thrown together in this mess? And how are we supposed to survive it and feel good about ourselves? At the end of “Gran Torino”, Walt seems to have discovered the answers to these questions.

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