10 March 2009

GRAN TORINO (Dir. Clint Eastwood, 2008, US)

I probably should not be writing about a film that has already been widely reviewed by the mainstream UK film magazines, journals and newspapers but Clint Eastwood seems to be an exception to the rule when discussing the merits of contemporary Hollywood cinema. The longevity of his star image and wide populist appeal has become something almost sacred to American culture and like John Wayne and Gary Cooper before him he offers an iconic vision of a nation’s past that is inextricably tied to the western genre. Now 78 years old, Clint Eastwood has said that ‘Gran Torino’ may just be his last starring role and his presence in the film is certainly evident of how Hollywood films seem mildly bereft of actors who do lend a certain gravitas to the narrative proceedings. I feel the key to Eastwood’s success as a film maker has certainly been his uncomplicated approach to cinema; preferring simple camera set ups and never allowing the aesthetics of the frame to detract from the traditional aim of telling a linear story. The emotional power of his most recent films seems to come from a series of award winning performances delivered by some of Hollywood’s strongest actors; names like Sean Penn and Hilary Swank come to mind.

Yet what is it with much of contemporary Hollywood narrative and the final third? ‘Gran Torino’ continues a current trend of Hollywood films that have completely missed the mark when it comes to closure. A similar fate befalls ‘Gran Torino’ with the narrative unravelling in the perplexing climax of what is effectively a contemporary updating of Eastwood’s most iconic on screen persona; Harry Callahan. Having performed amazingly well in both the US domestic box office and internationally, ‘Gran Torino’ suggests that even at 78 Clint Eastwood is still a bankable film star. When Spike Lee recently hit out at Clint Eastwood’s supposed airbrushing of historical truth in his World War II films by marginalising black soldiers, it caused a bitter war of words between the two that ended in Spike Lee reminding Eastwood that they ‘were not on a plantation’ anymore. As controversial as this very public dispute was between two very different film makers, Spike Lee seemed to overlook a glaring truth about Eastwood’s body of work; his revisionist westerns especially ‘The Outlaw Josey Wales’ and ‘Unforgiven’ readdressed the misrepresentations of minority racial groups like the Native American way back in an era which was still coming to terms with the absence of black film makers.

Strangely enough, ‘Gran Torino’ is a film entirely about how racial attitudes and cultural misconceptions can be challenged, leading to greater understanding. At the same time, it is a star vehicle, tailor made for Clint Eastwood’s on screen persona and his performance as the grouchy, aging and bigoted Walt Kowalski is an amalgam of understatement and simmering anger. In some respects, the film falters quite badly, failing to paint a realistic and convincing picture of Asian gang culture. At its core, this is really an exploitation film that is benefited by the graceful presence of Clint Eastwood who returns to the familiar thematic territory of revenge which has tended to form a significant part of his most popular films like ‘Mystic River’. The other question that preoccupies the character of Walt is death, and like ‘Million Dollar Baby’, it is something that Eastwood treats with dignity.

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