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The International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year: Film

Eastwood is Eastwood.
Gabriela Davies

Some films are just a collection of clichés. These films can disappoint, they can comfort, they can bore, or they can turn everything on its head and surprise us.

Clint Eastwood’s latest popcorn-promoting masterpiece, Gran Torino, seems to try to be different by trying to be the same. The plot: American suburbia. The issue: diverse cultures coming into collision. The romance: shy boy meets stern man. Man makes boy more of a man. Boy makes man more of a human. The characters: ethnic minority youngster, pimples and all; Levi-wearing, beer-slurping harsh voiced Eastwood.

But Gran Torino does have a lot more to it than a selection of easily recognisable storylines and stereotypical characters. It has Eastwood for one. And perhaps what we can begin to see is Eastwood’s real agenda shining through. From the likes of Unforgiven (1992) and Bird (1988), from the early days of Heartbreak Ridge (1986) Eastwood as an actor-director seems to have developed an underlying interest in race and society. His characters seem to have shared traits, shared pasts.

Walt Kowalski, a retired factory worker and widow, lives by himself in a rough and ready neighbourhood of Michigan. We start the film at a funeral – his wife’s. We slowly pace back to the wake and meet his sons, both shallow and self-involved in a manner truly reminiscent of American Beauty (1999). Walt (played by Eastwood) takes a walk outside, and we go with him. We pan over the lawn and next door, a huge family gathering of Hmongs (an Asian ethnic group from the regions of Southeast Asia) passes us by. From behind the camera Eastwood (or is it Walt? Eastwood is such a character in himself it’s hard to tell) sneers. Someone approaches our front yard and we hear that almost cartoon voice saying: "get off my lawn".

The film progresses to show the development from strangers to friends of these two neighbouring houses. Some delightful scenes will make you chuckle with laughter. Some lonely scenes will make you ache deep inside. The film has a bittersweet addictive quality to it; something about the streets of suburbia you just can’t stop watching.

The casting is perfect for the film’s message: Eastwood is the focal point of the story, and part of the story in himself. The Hmongs characters are played mainly by non-professionals found in nearby Hmong communities. The character of Thao (Bee Vang) is cast perfectly as a shy but appealing boy. The cinematography is standard and seldom tries to break waves. Eastwood isn’t trying to win an Oscar here, he just fancies telling a story from the heart. That a cinema lover can watch this film and see in it so many others, and so many familiar characters and stories from Eastwood’s career, is the unique selling point itself.

Gran Torino is the name of the car that Walt proudly keeps in his garage. The kids in the neighbourhood envy it; Walt loves it almost as much as his faithful dog. The Gran Torino is a classic old American car, built from scratch by Walt himself during his fifty years at the Ford factory. That Eastwood chose this to be the name and focal point of the film says a lot, as much about the plot and morale as it does about Eastwood and Walt themselves.

As I said, Gran Torino seems to try to be different by trying to be the same. The problem: it’s been done before. The solution: we all love Eastwood. The morale: a great film.

A World Apart
Gabriela Davies on two film
'Things we lost in the fire' comes as a clean break from the happy endings we are used to. The narrative is strong, yet simple.

Alt views of Gran Torino

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