Gran Torino ★★★★½

The quintessential late Eastwood movie, an uneasy combination of genre signifiers, melodrama, and socially provocative language and subject matter in a first draft script, cast mostly with first-timers who give wooden performances, even finding time for an Eastwood-sung title song. It’s one of his greatest films because he makes all of these elements work, while going even deeper into the introspection that marked Unforgiven. Unforgiven is a film about the symbolism of the old West as codified by Hollywood movies, about exposing these myths as fraudulent and illustrating their grimy, senselessly violent truths. But Gran Torino is more directly a film about the relationship between these Hollywood myths and America at large - both how Hollywood impacted America, and how America informed Hollywood. Walt Kowalski is a product of this culture, a grizzled veteran whose tough-as-nails persona is lifted from the movies Eastwood and his contemporaries made because that’s the popular culture Walt lived through. Tao’s cousins, careless gangsters for whom violence is a solution to all problems, a leveling force that supersedes familial loyalty, are a product of this culture, too. The western genre is built upon heroic strangers riding into the unknown to save the day, but almost always at the expense of an Other, a group, like the Native Americans, who do not fit into hegemonic values. In Gran Torino, this relationship is upended - Walt, a bigot, embraces the Hmong and becomes their heroic stranger, and though his reasons are complicated, they ultimately spring from a sense of justice that’s built into the American way of life, amplified by entertainments like the western. It is not insignificant that, as Sue explains, the Hmong were displaced by their allied relationship with the United States during the Vietnam War, an example of American force at its most wrongheaded. At its core, the film’s violence is uniquely American.

Its most remarkable moment is its climax; Eastwood never makes the film’s connection to the western genre explicit, but comes closest in this final sequence, where he subtly transposes the visual grammar of a classic western standoff - people leaning out of windows with guns in hand, innocent bystanders in the buildings across the street, tension built through silence and close-ups, the entire sequence captured from the point-of-view of a lone hero as he methodically assesses the dangers laid out in front of him. The scene plays out this way because it is how the movies told us it would play out. But there’s no gloriously violent resolution, none of the satisfaction associated with revenge. Our hero doesn’t even manage to draw his weapon, if he ever even held one in the first place. It’s a complete deflation of the cowboy mythos.

Though this dimension is ultimately the film’s most interesting and fleshed out facet, to focus solely on it is to ignore the many other wonderful elements at play. For example, Eastwood's characterization of Walt is incredibly layered; the performance is wholly insular, the character is shaped by typical regrets and traumas while also being a regressive bigot, he’s infused with a mythic stature that challenges our perception of him (“The thing that haunts a man is the stuff he wasn't ordered to do”), and this perception is undermined further still. Many of the film’s best moments are Walt’s brief contemplative musings out on his porch. The film is also one of Eastwood’s most successful comedies, as all of the humor comes naturally, and even when the language gets rough, it’s still informed by a certain sweetness (This is why Walt’s old fashioned, very masculine relationship with his barber is so important). The sequence where Walt joins Sue and her family at their barbecue is a great display of Eastwood’s ability to juggle tones; it goes from sweet and gentle, to humorous, to striking and sad, all bound together by Eastwood’s humanism. I think this is one of Eastwood’s best films because it is one of his most challenging.