Saturday, January 10, 2009

Movie Review: Gran Torino

To understand my reaction to Clint Eastwood's newest movie, Gran Torino, you first need to know about my father-in-law. A Marine Corps WWII combat veteran (Pacific theater), he worked construction for the first few years after he got out of the Corps, and then joined the Milwaukee Police Department and spent 28 years walking and driving the beat as a street cop. It took him until this century to finally break down enough to buy a Japanese car, and the way he uses language in "polite" conversation even today, well —

I swear, as I was watching Gran Torino, I thought screenwriter Nick Schenk must have been following my father-in-law around with a tape recorder, because he nailed down Eastwood's character's voice absolutely perfectly.

In this movie Eastwood plays Walt Kowalski, an aging, recently widowed, Korean War combat veteran and retired Ford factory worker living in urban Detroit. His two sons and their wives are sanctimonious ingrates living out in the suburbs, his grandchildren are easily bored buckets of greed, and so he lives alone in the last nice house in a neighborhood that's no longer in transition; it's gone right down the toilet and you'd better flush twice. All Walt wants to do is maintain his tiny patch of lawn and be left alone, especially by the boyishly earnest new priest in the parish, Father Janovich (played with wonderfully clueless innocence by Christopher Carley), who is determined to get Kowalski back into the fold. Kowalski's one joy in life is his mint-condition 1972 Ford Gran Torino, which he bought off the assembly line where he helped build it and which he never drives; he just keeps it in the garage under a dust cover and rolls it out once a week, to wash and polish it.

The car is a Maguffin, of course. Kowalski's unhappy and tightly compacted life takes a turn for the worse when a noisy, fatherless, three-generation Hmong family moves into the house next door, and he's forced to interact with them when he catches their teenaged son, Thao (played by a local lad, Robbinsdale high school student Bee Vang), trying to steal the car as part of a gang initiation. Against Kowalski's awesome obstinance, the equally bull-headed Hmong mother is determined to make Thao repay his debt by working for Kowalski, and so, slowly, grudgingly, Kowalski and Thao begin to move towards an understanding.

I won't say too much more about the plot for fear of spoiling it, except to warn you that the ending is almost unbearably sad. This one also merits a language warning — and then another language warning on top of the previous warning, and maybe one more besides. While the story turns around Kowalski's growing to know his neighbors and care about their lives — (and on another note, kudos to technical adviser Dyane Garvey, because the movie gets the traditional Hmong "Ordeal by Food" exactly right) — the plot hinges on several clashes between Hispanic, Hmong, and black gangsters, and when they meet, the dialog is nothing but nonstop racial insults and f-words concatenating more f-words topped off with f-words. Strangely enough, though, what most reviewers have been objecting to is Kowalski's thick and furious equal-opportunity slinging of racial epithets. I guess people of color get a pass on this point.

I will say it again, though: based on a lifetime of listening to combat veterans, longshoremen, teamsters, and blue-collar factory workers, I think the dialog is, if anything, a little mild. In the theater where I saw it, Kowalski's constant profanity and racial slurs evoked first gasps, then nervous titters, and then, finally, honest laughter, especially as Thao finally "man's up" enough to begin giving as good as he gets.

Rating: Four Stars (with brief scenes of very graphic violence and a strong language warning)