Friday, January 09, 2009

"Gran Torino": Clint Eastwood makes a stand in Michigan

Once again, Clint Eastwood gives us a studied, intense film with “character” issues, this one a bit of a modern “Michigan western” leading to a “High Noon” style confrontation at the end that he may not survive, and may not want to. The film is "Gran Torino", from Warner Brothers and Village Roadshow. This time the character is Walt Kowalski, just widowed at the start of the film. He keeps his Detroit homestead, a 30s frame house with the internal “chimney” construction that spreads fires, perhaps. He has a huge toolshed (rather like my own father’s workshop, much truly worthy of becoming a museum). And he’s the only white left in a Hmong neighborhood, with which he does not seem to have good relations.

The Hmong are southeast Asian ethic groups who fought with the United States during the Vietnam war. I recall, when living in Minnesota, that they were a significant voting block, particularly in St. Paul. Kowalski asks why they came to the “Midwest” where there are “six months of snow a year.” Generally, there’s less than that. The film depicts the group as prone to gangs, which I don’t recall hearing in the media all when living in Minneapolis. Teenage Thao Vang Lor (Bee Vang) tries to steal Kowalki’s 1972 Gran Torino as part of a “gang initiation”, and when he gets caught, Kowalski, after some reluctance, attempts to serve as a role model for Thao, who speaks good English and sounds like a good kid. Kowalski teaches him how to be assertive, even with bad words, in a macho-valued community, and yet make good things happen. For example, he helps Kowalksi get a construction job. The film, with some exaggeration, seems to make a point of showing how senior men ought to become "social" role models for disadvantaged teens or boys. The movie also shows the socialization of some lower income communities (not at all restricted to the Hmong and perhaps this is not even generally true of the Hmong) that requires boys to show their loyalty to the group as a moral imperative.

Christopher Carley plays the intrusive 27-year-old Father Janovich, as the “virgin” priest who keeps tracking down Kowalski and barging in, out of the desires of his deceased wife. The film does make something of the power of the will. The film also examines the way various groups are socialized, and how people in groups build their own moral values based on part on expected group loyalties--along with the inevitable social clashes that will result.

But Kowalski’s own health is failing – his smoking is a clue – and that may actually motivate the film’s end. The story is by Nick Schenk and Dave Johansson.

The film started very limited release Dec. 19 and opened in wide release today. It had a fair crowd at a Regal in Arlington VA at a 2 PM Friday matinee.

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