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Gran Torino as Career Commentary

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From The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly to Unforgiven, Dirty Harry to Blood Work, Clint Eastwood has been an American film icon for nearly 50 years. In the decade after his breakthrough in Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars, Eastwood would help create two of the most iconic film roles in the history of cinema with Leone’s “The Man With No Name Trilogy” - a misnomer applied by a studio looking for a marketing gimmick - and veteran director Don Siegel’s Dirty Harry, in which he played San Francisco Police Inspector “Dirty Harry” Callahan. Eastwood would never be able to fully shake the image created largely for him in these two film series. Throughout his parallel and intertwining career as a critically and commercially acclaimed film director, he has often taken an unexpected glee in subverting expectations and even coming dangerously close to mocking his own image in films as diverse as the The Outlaw Josie Wales, Bronco Billy, The Bridges of Madison County, and Space Cowboys, among others. What’s fascinating is that interspersed throughout his career as an actor/director, he made films that intentionally played into the reputation that he’d built up in the westerns, war pictures, and cop dramas - including one of the entries of the Dirty Harry series. However, even with all of this sly subversion in Eastwood’s catalogue, he has never made a more scything indictment of his own image than in his 2008 film Gran Torino.

In Gran Torino, Eastwood plays Walt Kowalski, a newly-widowed, bitterly racist Korean war veteran retired from his job at an automobile factory. Walt’s clear disdain for anyone who isn’t a white male over the age of 60 includes even his own family. Eastwood was 78 at the time of starring in and directing Gran Torino, and upon the film’s release announced that it would represent his retirement from acting. It is no coincidence that the Clint Eastwood in the film looks far older and more frail than he ever had before. Prior to Gran Torino, the film the actor had most recently appeared in was Million Dollar Baby, a role that earned him an Academy Award nomination. Though 74 at the release of that film, he looks far healthier and full of life than in Gran Torino. It is startling to see the man once known as Dirty Harry cough up blood, the ultimate tough guy struggling with his own mortality. Throughout the movie, Walt hides his illness from others, none of them privy to the camera’s knowledge.

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Interspersed with rare moments of begrudging vulnerability, Eastwood mostly gives his audience what they expect from a “Clint Eastwood” film, but never in a completely conventional way. Early on in the production of Gran Torino, rumors ran rampant that the film was intended to be another Dirty Harry film, the sixth in the franchise, and it’s not much of a stretch: Harry Callahan is not really so different from Walt Kowalski. Both characters are gun-toting bigots who grit their teeth and say little. They share short tempers and foul mouths. Dirty Harry Callahan’s more authoritarian tendencies would not feel so out of place in Gran Torino. One can’t help but think that the similarities in the two characters were in the back of Eastwood’s mind throughout the filming of the movie. The scene early in the film depicting Walt’s first run-in with the Hmong gang seems to be a sort of perverse mockery of Dirty Harry’s famous “.44 magnum” or “make my day” speeches delivered by Eastwood in the earlier films. Eastwood glares down the end of his rifle and snarls at the gang members to “get of [his] lawn”. This is both extremely satisfying as the sort of sardonic tough guy line that the audience expects from Eastwood and a satiric jab at well-worn action movie clichés. It’s almost surreal to see a stereotypical “old man” phrase delivered with such anger and seething hatred down the barrel of a gun. It’s a tightrope between terrifying and absurd that Eastwood walks throughout the film.

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There is one devilishly clever scene where Eastwood allows himself to deliver the violence his audience is expecting. In an attempt to warn the Hmong gang who has been harassing his newfound companions, he drives to the home of one of the members and brutally beats him before pulling out a handgun and growling out a ferocious warning to the young man. The sheer fact that the 78-year-old actor could even convincingly muscle in on a man a third of his age is nothing short of astonishing and says a great deal about Eastwood’s reputation as an action star. Additionally, this is one of Gran Torino’s only scenes of actual, fulfilled violence. Elsewhere in the film, the violence is just beneath the surface, threatening to boil over at any moment. Guns are brandished constantly, though shockingly the trigger is pulled only in the film’s daring climax, and significantly Walt Kowalski isn’t the one who pulls it. As a stark contrast to Dirty Harry, Kowalski uses his firearms as deterrents rather than to stop his enemies altogether. Upon repeat viewings of Gran Torino, it becomes quite clear that this scene of the beating is far more graphically violent than any other scene in the film - including the bullet-riddled climax - and it’s legitimately disturbing to realize that this sort of brutality is exactly what many fans of Eastwood wanted to see upon buying a ticket to the film. This fact does not seem lost on Eastwood the director, who repeatedly refuses to give in to the kind of “Dirty Harry” moments that are expected of him, with this scene being the primary, unapologetic exception.

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Unlike many characters in Hollywood films that forefront racism as a major theme, Walt does not have a great epiphany at any one moment in the picture. Instead his change is more subtle, more oblique, and it’s not even immediately apparent. Through contrast and clever compositions, two back-to-back scenes depicting unusual confessions depict Walt’s change better than anything else in the film. The first involves an actual priest, and it’s a mockery of a typical Catholic confession. Walt confesses to the priest in his living room, admitting that he kissed a woman at an office party, didn’t pay taxes on the sale of a boat, and didn’t get to know his sons better. The priest is dumbfounded; Walt has mentioned nothing about his experiences during the Korean war. Walt’s true confessional comes in the next scene where, full prepared to go exact his revenge on the Hmong gang, Walt locks Thao, the young man from next door, in his basement so he doesn’t ruin his own life with rash behavior. Thao threatens and begs for release so that he can accompany Walt, and through the locked screen door - which substitutes brilliantly for a confessional screen - Walt gives his only truly naked moment in the film. He snarls at Thao, telling him that he has to live with the horrible things he did in the war and that he doesn’t want Thao’s soul tainted in such a way. It’s an alarming scene, the only moment in the film where Walt Kowalski isn’t hiding behind a gruff exterior.

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After about ninety minutes of slow build-up, with only one example of real on-screen violence between two people, the film’s climax shows the normally very classical Eastwood at his most self-reflexive and subversive. The Hmong gang's idle threats have turned into drive-by shootings and, most traumatically, the beating and rape of Sue. For Walt Kowalski, it has gone too far and he must intervene. He feels that his actions brought this violence upon the poor family and as a result makes the decision to go up against the gang himself. It’s important to note that at this point of the film we as an audience aren’t sure of Walt’s intentions, but we’ve been conditioned to expect a very specific kind of climax to a Clint Eastwood film. We know from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, from Dirty Harry and its sequels, from Pale Rider and High Plains Drifter and a dozen or more Eastwood films what is supposed to happen at this point in the movie. We expect the Eastwood character, whoever he may be playing, to go in and kill all of the "bad guys" in an exciting, violent way. This is what we have been given time and time again, and this is what we expect now. Eastwood and his screenwriter, however, refuse to give us this easy out and what happens is far more profound and interesting as a result of this steadfast refusal. Walt does indeed seek out the “bad guys”, and he does call them out, but that is the end of his meeting our expectations. Instead of a shootout, Walt begins lecturing the gang members, talking long enough and loud enough that he knows there will be plenty of people watching. He then reaches in his coat pulls something out. The gang members open fire, pumping dozens of bullets into Walt’s body, and he falls back, dead. It’s revealed in a shot thereafter that Walt was reaching for a lighter, but his actions were chosen very carefully and he knew exactly what he was doing. Eastwood has refused to give us what we wanted, and even questions our reasons for wanting a violent shootout when a more pacifistic route would yield far better results. Instead of a clichéd violent gunfight, Walt sacrifices himself so that the gang will go to jail and the town will be safe. Eastwood’s point, it seems, is that Dirty Harry was wrong, and Walt’s actions are far more heroic for his refusal to use violence as a means to an end. If the Christ-like pose that Walt Kowalski’s body is revealed to be in from a bird’s eye shot belabors the obvious a bit, Eastwood’s point is still heard loud and clear, and the film’s climax is a very powerful one.

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Throughout his career, Clint Eastwood has played iconic film roles, and Walt Kowalski may just go down as his last and one of his best remembered. Walt is not exactly a complicated man, but none of Eastwood’s most famous cowboy or cop roles were. Instead, Eastwood as an actor made a career playing one-note characters with single-minded ambition, and Kowalski falls within that framework perfectly. Eastwood goes to great lengths in the film to avoid glorifying violence or painting Walt as a “good” man. Never before has Eastwood so mercilessly criticized himself and the roles that he’s spent half a century playing than in Grand Torino.

by Fallon Yeats