‘Dirty Harry on a pension” – so says film critic Roger Ebert about Clint Eastwood’s character in Gran Torino. And if you got a dollar for every time a reviewer has written that Gran Torino will “make your day”, you’d probably make more money from the movie than Clint himself. It seems clear, however, that the protagonist of Gran Torino is only superficially akin to the maverick cop of those 1970s movies. In fact, Brendan Staunton SJ, in the film review below, sees Clint’s new movie (which he both acts in and directs) as a “salvation story” with a deeply positive message and some excellent acting. Altogether, fit viewing for Holy Week.
CROSS AND RESURRECTION: A review of Gran Torino
Brendan Staunton SJ
Of all the films, in all my lifetime, I have never seen one without a kissing scene, that is until this one. Not only that, how rare for a film to focus on an elderly person, and how unusual for a priest to be presented in such a positive light?
I’m talking about Clint Eastwood’s latest (and last?): Gran Torino. The metonymic title refers to a car, a treasured possession, an object of desire for his granddaughter, a neighbouring boy and a criminal gang. Cars equal movement and the characters certainly move during this story of evil being beaten by the sacrificial goodness of one individual.
Without spoiling the ending, the Christian symbolism stands out, not just in the envelope structure of the opening and closing shots, both funeral scenes in a Catholic church, not only in a confessional scene (the crucial turning point), but even more so in the cruciform figure of a dead man, not hanging from a cross, but lying on the ground. From this ground, redemption rises up and justice is won for a family who had to endure a terrible trauma at the hands of a youthful gang trapped in a grip of violent vengeance.
The film brings out how violence leads to violence, and also how goodness can triumph in the end.
A review cannot do justice to the sparkling dialogue, the crisp editing, the transition from loneliness to love, the superb acting, the contrast between the individualism of the American family, and the community orientation of the Hmong family get-togethers.
Clint Eastwood fans will relish the Dirty Harry echoes, the lonely photographer of Madison County, and the haunted disk jockey of Play Misty for Me. For me, this is the culmination of a career that has reached a pinnacle of perfection, not a word to be used lightly. There is a maturity here that is latent in his previous work. It is not an exaggeration to declare that this is Eastwood’s King Lear, as The Field was for Richard Harris. (Although it could also be compared to Hamlet, in that revenge is central.)
A sub-plot is the cultural tensions between Americans and Asians, but the core tension is an individual overcoming the hurt of grief, the guilty memories of war and the lack of communication between a father and his two sons.
It is a salvation story, although at first, it is not easy to see beyond the gun culture. The power of the gun is the catalyst for the emergence of the power of love, love as a healing light, whose vulnerable weakness is a strength. The most memorable scene is when Clint holds up a cigarette, facing those who hate him for his goodness in saving a family from violence, and instead of asking for a light, says “I have a light”, the lightness of a new-found freedom from his cold, bitter and “stick my neck out for nobody” attitudes, to a graceful light of letting-go for the sake of those he has come to love. From an “old school man” to a new man.
The scene of the reading out of his will in a cramped lawyer’s office is truly uplifting, as the heartless family get their come-uppance. The scenes where a young boy is being taught to talk like a man are hilarious (especially if compared to My Fair Lady!). The heaviness is lightened sparingly, although some of the scenes linger a bit too long. But then again, old people like to linger, and the scenes that take their time are anticipatory. Clint as director is a master of sequencing, reminiscent of Hitchcock.
This film is a Jesus-like movie, in that it conveys what Jesus went through during His passion and death. A Holy Week film for sure!