Sunday, 19 April 2009

Gran Torino

For a man almost in his 80s, Clint Eastwood doesn't seem to be slowing down and, if anything, seems to be doing more and more. Just a few months after seeing his 1920s Los Angeles-set Changeling, we recently saw his latest, Gran Torino, and what a different film it is. Not happy with just directing this time, Eastwood also plays the lead character, Walt Kowalski, an ageing and embittered Korean War veteran. The beginning of the film finds Walt mourning the death of his wife, bemoaning the bad manners, ingratitude and materialism of his children, scornful of the young priest presiding over his parish, and horrified by the arrival of Hmong neighbours. The latter fly in Walt's ointment both feeds his latent racism but ultimately provokes him to change. By the end, well, by the end things have changed.

While enjoyable and well-played for the most part, there are a couple of little flaws which detract from an otherwise solid entry to Eastwood's body of work. One is simply the rather obvious manner in which the film is told - Eastwood spells everything out for the audience, and even has his character think important development points out loud and generally garrumph his way through the indignities foisted on him. No subtle approaches here.

Secondly, while the main themes of the film is the acceptance of other races and cultures, it has a strange way of showing it at times. For instance, in what are admittedly a pair of very funny scenes, (Polish American) Walt and his (Italian American) barber exchange a slew of nationalist insults that clearly establishes their long-standing friendship. Unsubtle as it is, the film puts this completely in context so that no-one in the audience could possibly mistake these characters for simple racists. However, by continually painting racist or nationalistic language in (more) acceptable contexts, the film could (easily, IMHO) be interpreted as suggesting that verbal racism is completely harmless. At times it felt like a cheap two finger salute to politically correct orthodoxy, one that both forgets that language can be a subtle weapon, and which glosses over genuine racism in society.

Or perhaps I'm just getting oversensitive in my old age?

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