Still woefully behind on my movie-watching agenda, I did at least manage to see Gran Torino over the weekend. I could’ve sworn I heard Dr. Manhattan whispering to me from the Watchmen poster as I walked into the theater, but I stood firm, and managed to find my way into the loving arms of Clint.
I wasn’t even going to write a review of the film – if this even qualifies as such – because it is pretty straightforward enjoyment as films go: it is simple story-telling almost perfected. Clint (you guys don’t need a last name, right? Because I know him like that) plays Walt Kowalski, a racist, xenophobic, ornery old fart of a widowed war veteran who, having lost his wife – his only love in life – and alienated his sons, is left to contend with his own mortality and with being the last surviving white, red-blooded American in a falling-down neighbourhood taken over by immigrants. This is until he has occasion to save and befriend Thao, a Hmong teenager who lives next door, and who becomes indebted to Walt after having tried to steal his 1972 Gran Torino as part of a forced gang initiation.
It is a well-worn story of mutual redemption: the close-knit Hmong family with its open arms, old world traditions and delicious food teaches Walt how family is done; while Walt takes their boy under his wing and shows him his particular brand of manhood. I can’t say I was crazy about Walt as white Saviour to the immigrant community: he puts Thao to work repairing the ramshackle homes on his street that the Hmong have let fall into disrepair. We aren’t clued into why their homes are falling down. We can infer, if we’re feeling charitable, that since most of the young boys end up in gangs, there’s no one left to retile roofs and repair rain gutters. Or we can deduce that they are just typical, shiftless, lazy immigrant bastards. Walt certainly seems to think so, at least initially, and there isn’t much effort to disabuse of us this notion.
Arguably, there’s no need to bother getting offended by anything in this film: the main character is racist and we inhabit his world. But one could also argue that the film has a world of its own – a message for which Walt is only a vehicle – and if that too is racist in parts, then that might be slightly problematic. The film pushes you towards an uncomfortable edge. Walt drops the words ‘gook’ and ‘slopehead’ with abandon in his menacing zingers. And before he is reformed – if you can even call it that – you’re driven to erupt into what is at first laughter, but then degenerates into a nervous chuckle, as if to say “Oh silly old racist. Heh.” After he's reformed, things get even more complicated: the racial slurs directed at the Hmong are now meant to be terms of endearment; and now, no longer vectors of hate, are juxtaposed with the 'greedy Jew' and other racist stereotypes which Walt good-naturedly applies to his friends. I'm not sure that naive 'slurs are only slurs if there's hate behind them' message flies with me. But whatever your feelings on this, the dialogue does make you slightly self-conscious about your own engagement with racist vernacular. Discomfort is what the film does best, what it uses to interrogate the audience’s own perceptions of racism, and it is ingenious in this respect.
Another ‘technique’, which I quote/unquote because I’m not sure it’s a technique at all, is a function of the casting, acting and direction. Apart from Clint and a couple minor players, the acting…well…it pretty much sucks. Astoundingly, far from detracting too much from the film, it actually works in its favour. Bee Vang, who plays Thao, is perhaps the worst transgressor in this category: his body, his face, his mouth don’t seem to inhabit the space of the film. He is painfully awkward in delivering his lines and is extremely self-conscious as an actor. But his character is precisely all these things as well. Thao, having lost his very strict father and having been dismissed as the replacement head of the family for being ‘too girly’, is unsure of where he belongs. He feels awkward inhabiting his current space, but has not yet managed to find another, so the mirroring of Bee’s acting and Thao’s being works surprisingly well. And at no point did I think (well maybe once, but only very briefly) “Holy crap, this guy is a nightmare.” I didn’t fall in love with Thao, but I don’t know that I was meant to.
I did, however, fall in love with Sue, Thao’s sister, played by Ahney Her. Her acting sucked sometimes too, in similar ways, though not as often. But it added to the innocence of these children, so that by the time Sue becomes a victim of gang retribution, the audience feels personally wounded. Even in playing the feisty one in the family, Her sometimes delivered her lines like she was reading them from a script. She was, pointedly, not the smug American Juno. She was definitely the Other, the non-(American)Juno, fierce and independent but refreshingly so. Could this have been accomplished by hiring better actors with different direction? Perhaps. But this way worked, and I would imagine it rarely does. My movie partner didn’t agree, and I certainly see his objection: he was put off by the poor delivery, and felt that it sometimes plucked him from the created reality of the film so that he was aware he was watching a movie. That was not my experience, but I can appreciate how it might happen.
With the focus on simple story-telling, there were no complex tricks of cinematography, and I could certainly have done without the close-ups of Walt’s snarl, which cheesed the movie up a bit. And oh yes, there was some cheese to be had, in part provided by pieces of Clint’s dialogue. As famous as he is for his deadpan one-liners, there is such a thing as too many. ‘Too liney’, I call it, in my sophisticated, movie-critic parlance. But I had lots of laughs and was entirely dedicated to Walt as a character – another genius of the casting, because everyone loves Clint. Anyone else playing a racist, gun-toting bastard might have been significantly less successful: Walt, like Will Munny, is (by his own code) morally superior, highly flawed, efficient in retribution, unafraid of self-sacrifice and wholly awe-inspiring. And these are the best ways to watch Clint Eastwood.