The Lawn Ranger
By Leo Goldsmith
Dir. Clint Eastwood, U.S., Warner Bros.
Clint Eastwood's movie posters over the last couple of decades feature an almost invariable iconography: film after film, one one-sheet after another, a choleric Eastwood (or sometimes just his floating head) squints out from a black backdrop, half his likeness lost in shadows. Even without knowledge of the films themselves, we understand what these images stress: that, almost without exception, every Eastwood character—from Blondie to Bill Munny and beyond—has a skeleton in his closet. The Man With No Name is discernibly a Man With a Past, as is every successive incarnation of the Outlaw Clint Eastwood—disappointment, failure, and wrongdoing are wrought into the lines of his face, like the mole perched above his upper lip.
Clearly this is a man with something to hide, and more often than not, that “something” is history itself: the Civil War, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, even Kennedy's assassination. (The only films that even resemble sci-fi in Clint's canon—Firefox and Space Cowboys —are about a Vietnam vet and a space-race leftover, respectively.) With this inherent historical interest, Eastwood's films often involve a certain amount of archival research, as if we're obliged to dig up our collective pasts along with Eastwood's characters’. And like a good librarian, Clint helps the audience along in its fieldwork: excavating long-buried truths in Letters from Iwo Jima and The Bridges of Madison County, or sorting out men from their myths in White Hunter, Black Heart, Unforgiven, and Flags of Our Fathers. In Eastwood’s films in which he also stars, this process is especially pronounced: we're often faced with that weird pseudo-historical moment when the young, familiar face from Rawhide or Leone’s spaghetti Westerns peers out of a dog-eared black-and-white photograph or old newsreel footage, jogging alongside Kennedy's convertible or squatting amid the carnage of Korea. It’s as if, for decades, Eastwood has been positioning himself as a brooding man’s Leonard Zelig or Forrest Gump, a witness to all of America's wrongs who’s been trying to live them down ever since.
Korea is the requisite historical albatross for Walt Kowalski, Eastwood's proxy in Gran Torino, and we get this early in the film. After a wake for Walt’s recently deceased wife, his ne’er-do-well grandkids dig out that old black-and-white still photo (with young Eastwood Photoshopped into the corner) from a trunk emblazoned with the motto of the Army's 1st Cavalry Division: “Live the Legend.” In present-day Michigan—not a much sunnier setting than early-1950s Korea, as it turns out—Walt isn't exactly living a legend, though perhaps he thinks he is. Long retired from his job at the Ford plant, just widowed, and with two grown sons who’ve apathetically fled for the comforts of middle-class life, Walt whiles away his twilight years, chain-smoking and drinking Pabst on his front porch, fixing the odd faucet or ceiling fan, chummily insulting his barber, and polishing his treasured, titular 1972 Ford. Of course, this is not to say that he’s content to go gentle into that good night: at the close of day in the sprawling urban grids around Detroit, there are plenty of contemporary horrors to burn and rave about: gang violence, immigration, old age, the ghastly innovations of the young. And, boy, does Walt burn and rave. He literally growls at the sight of his granddaughter's navel-ring, loudly complains about all the "gooks" and "spooks" who've moved into his once homogeneously white working-class neighborhood, and before long points his rifle at various members of the local immigrant population when the need arises (or doesn’t).
Gran Torino's variation on the Eastwood archetype is that of a cantankerous old bastard, an intractable racist, an embittered libertarian. Though there's a “Support Our Troops” sign in every window, Walt is a man of principle who’s been left behind and emasculated by social change, his experience and know-how consistently undervalued. In short, he’s the seventysomething update of exactly what Pauline Kael was complaining about when she called Dirty Harry a “right-wing fantasy,” unleashing the latent fascism of the action film to advocate white vigilantism against hippies and minorities. The difference in Gran Torino is that the hippies have all grown old—they got jobs, had kids, and bought SUVs (not American ones, though) —and the minorities have become the majorities. When Walt spits chaw off his porch in abhorrence of the “swamprats” and “zipperheads” who live next door, his grandmotherly Hmong neighbor does the same, disgusted that a miserable, racist old white man should cling to his territory after all his people have departed for more verdant suburbs.
A welcome follow-up to the disastrous, turgid Changeling, Gran Torino is one of Eastwood's quick-and-dirty(-Harry) productions, which means that while there are more than a few rough edges (especially the mainly fresh-faced cast, which isn't served well by Eastwood's direction or the occasionally corny dialogue), its overall workmanlike charm wins over, delivering upon our expectations of what an Eastwood film ought to be and adding a few witty twists. At first, Walt is played largely for laughs—broad ones, too—with his imprudent habit of addressing the local hoods with ethnic slurs and then pointing a cocked thumb and forefinger at them. Later, as such a set-up demands, he wins our sympathy and respect by forging some kind of racial reconciliation. He befriends the Lor family next door, first by inadvertently protecting them from a local gang while aggressively (and literally) defending his turf, then by teaching their recalcitrant son Thao a thing or two about being a macho handyman. With this contrast of the comical and the cloying, there is a mock-epic (or mid-Western) tone throughout the film, which is reflected in Kyle Eastwood and Michael Stevens’s alternately parodic and drippy score. A martial snare heralds each of Walt's surges of violence, a wistful Western guitar serenades his porch-bound PBR binges, and a thunderously literal title song caps the movie and follows the credits. (This final cue, a tunelessly jazzy number penned by both Eastwoods and a roomful of songwriters, is even partly sung by Clint in a hoarse, sultry whisper.)
But though Eastwood is not above self-deprecation and, here, downright silliness, Gran Torino is no orangutan movie. Throughout, there is that familiar undercurrent of real violence, the sudden and dramatic escalation of which is common in many Eastwood films. Typically, this ratcheting culminates in a particularly ugly act—the rape of an innocent or murder of a weak character—which enrages Eastwood into action and therefore redemption. But quite unexpectedly, this act forces Walt, not into living out a Dirty Harry "right-wing fantasy," but something else entirely. For like many a white working-class American this year, Gran Torino has the hawkish appearance of a McCain voter right until the last second, before veering in the other direction. In its ending, it confirms that Walt’s generation of high-principled, no-bullshit white men shares much the same ethic of hard work and sacrifice with the various immigrant communities in the United States. This leaves Walt in a rather less equivocally heroic place than Bill Munny, disappearing into the west at the end of Unforgiven, or Frankie Dunn, evaporating into the ether at the end of Million Dollar Baby. In some ways, Eastwood’s character finally manages to emerge from the shadows in Gran Torino, outliving his past rather than merely fleeing it. Gracefully ushering change into the world, rather than grousing it off its lawn, the old makes way for the new, imparting a few grandfatherly lessons on its way out the door. Somehow, I think even Pauline would approve.