Last Man Standing: On Clint Eastwood
In Play Misty for Me (1971), Eastwood's directorial debut, a playboy disc jockey attempts to rebuff the affections of an obsessed fan, played by Jessica Walter, who stalks him after a one-night stand. Here the lone wolf is confronted by the consequences of his actions, and the movie works as a thriller because it makes the hero look so vulnerable. Eastwood, who stars as the DJ, has a nightmarish confrontation with a caricature of unbridled female desire; he ends up knocking his stalker off a cliff to restore his masculine equilibrium. Critic Dave Kehr notes that Walter's performance was "so creepy and sexually aggressive that she hardly worked again for years." The perpetually unmarried Eastwood character has never understood how to integrate powerful females into his universe. Let's not forget that the catalyst for the epic eruption of violence in Unforgiven is a whore's laughter at the size of a cowboy's penis.
In the late 1970s and early '80s, Eastwood made a series of films with his new paramour Sondra Locke. A feisty, foul-mouthed firecracker in an undersized frame, Locke played Eastwood's liberated-female comic foil in The Gauntlet, Bronco Billy and Every Which Way but Loose. Her presence signals Eastwood's concession to the post-Fear of Flying era, but Locke is a feminist figure only in the most cartoonish sense. In The Gauntlet she plays a tough-talking hooker who wields her sexuality like a weapon. Eastwood plays a cop escorting her to a trial, and when bikers attack him on a boxcar, Locke unbuttons her blouse and invites them to rape her--under the correct assumption that Eastwood will attack them while their backs are turned. In another scene, to Eastwood's apparent disgust, she intimidates a perverted cop by asking him if his wife knows that he masturbates. By the end, she makes clear that her chief feminine desire is to settle down with Eastwood in a home with a backyard and two kids.
In Bronco Billy, Locke plays a whore of another sort, marrying a feckless Manhattan male so that she can satisfy the conditions for inheriting her father's wealth. Eastwood's title character is the washed-up star of a rodeo roadshow, an evangelist for the Wild West who reluctantly accepts the woman into his band of misfits and ex-convicts, as long as she's willing to play by his rules. You know Locke's character has matured when Bronco Billy ruminates: "I didn't like her too well myself, at the beginning, but she's coming around to my way of thinking now." Richard Schickel, who praises the film for its appreciation of core values, admits that Locke's voice essentially "exists to be awed into silence by this gently cracked true believer." The dimensions of Eastwood's world are neatly captured in the final shot of the film, which finds the whole gang congregated happily beneath Bronco Billy's big tent, stitched together with stars and stripes.
Though Gran Torino was shut out of this year's Oscars, Eastwood's latest moral reckoning has emerged as the biggest box office smash of his career--when the 2008 Academy Awards were handed out, it had outgrossed all five of the nominees for Best Picture. This is shocking because the early trailer for the film--featuring a grizzled Eastwood packing heat and intimidating an Asian gang by sneering "Get off my lawn!"--looked like an elaborate joke. (Indeed, a quick scan of Gran Torino's "memorable quotes" page on IMDb, which doubles as a formidable repository of racist folk humor, proves that this is Eastwood's most broadly comic film as a director.) But in the benighted contemporary American movie landscape, it's understandable why the film is being taken so seriously. In a rave review, the New York Times's Manohla Dargis argues that Eastwood's films "show an urgent engagement with the tougher, messier, bigger questions of American life." The movie addresses the growing Hmong minority in the Midwest with some sensitivity and offers a timely elegy for white male middle-class hegemony. Eastwood plays Walt Kowalski, a Polish-American Korean War vet and recently retired Ford assembly-line worker (as it happens, the movie opened the day the Senate rejected the since-ratified General Motors bailout). But more than any movie since Unforgiven, in which Eastwood, playing a retired gunslinger, wrestles with his Man With No Name legacy, Gran Torino is also a meditation on Clint Eastwood and his own obsolescence.
Walt Kowalski is a walking anachronism. Gran Torino opens at his wife's funeral in a Detroit suburb. (If an Eastwood character begins a movie as a married man, his wife usually dies before the opening credits.) We meet Walt's ungrateful children, one of whom sheepishly drives a Toyota, and his even more brutish grandchildren, who can't wait for the old man to shuffle off so they can turn their heirlooms into dorm-room accessories. Their grandfather spends an inordinate amount of time muttering and growling, cultivating his lean, mean mystique, nursing cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon and polishing his 1972 Ford Gran Torino, a worshiped piece of Americana. The Gran Torino is his final bulwark against the increasingly vulgar, multicultural world looming outside his front door. When a posse of Hmong gangsters attempts to steal his vehicle, the septuagenarian soldier decides to mete out his own brand of justice, inadvertently shielding the law-abiding Hmong community from this reckless band of urban cowboys.
In the hour leading up to the climactic confrontation, the movie centers around this bigot's relationship with the Hmong family next door. He wants these "zipperheads" off his property, but they keep returning to offer gifts to the accidental hero. The son, Thao, who attempted to steal the car as a gang initiation rite, offers himself as Walt's indentured servant as an act of penance. Thao is fatherless, a necessary contrivance that puts Gran Torino's agenda into play, because Walt needs to teach this immigrant to become "man of the house." While refusing to learn how to pronounce his name, Walt reluctantly teaches "Toad" how to wear a tool belt, pick up a woman and, in one particularly memorable scene, talk like a man.
Walt takes Thao into his local barbershop, where Walt makes a monthly visit to insult the barber's ethnicity and manhood in playful but vulgar fashion. When Thao makes an honest attempt at playing the game, calling the guy an "old Italian son-of-a-bitch prick barber," we laugh only because of his awkward diction. Why do audiences chuckle at a scene that implies immigrants should jump through hoops and help maintain certain white male rites of passage in order to be taken seriously as Americans? It's offensive and condescending, but more important, it's false. Gran Torino never entertains the idea that America is a country defined by its immigrants and not by John Wayne.
Because Gran Torino follows an archetypal Eastwood plot, Walt loosens up just enough to accept the persistent kindness of Thao's older sister, Sue Lor. She's a remarkably confident and compassionate young woman, with one foot in Hmong tradition and the other in her bright American future, able to see through this bigot's bluster and never flinching when he brags, "I'm the White Devil." Unfortunately, Gran Torino's plot eventually reduces Sue Lor to an archetype--a woman who exists to be violated and then protected. Sue Lor is raped by the local gang, which precipitates Walt's apparently selfless decision to martyr himself.
In the film's penultimate scene, after locking Thao in a basement, Walt approaches the gang hideout, essentially offering himself as a human sacrifice. It's a scene that mirrors the climactic saloon sequence in The Outlaw Josey Wales, except this time Eastwood is on the receiving end of the mythic transaction. "You got a light?" he asks, of no one in particular, summoning the peculiar sang-froid and smooth rhetoric that attaches to Harry Callahan before a decisive spasm of violence. "Me--I've got a light." He reaches into his pocket to retrieve his lighter. The gang members, thinking that Walt is packing heat and has come to exact revenge on Sue Lor's behalf, kill him with a blistering volley of gunfire. As our star falls to the ground, eagerly awaiting spiritual absolution for the sins of Dirty Harry, his limbs lock into a Jesus Christ pose. Even when Eastwood is trying to escape an outsize mythology, he cannot escape another outsize mythology.
The gesture seems especially paltry when compared with the heartbreaking resolution of Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler, a recent film that bears Eastwoodian hallmarks without succumbing to self-pity. (Eastwood's Changeling, released just months before Gran Torino, also exudes a comparable maturity, if only because Eastwood wisely displaces his own martyrdom onto Angelina Jolie.) Like Walt Kowalski, Randy the Ram (Mickey Rourke) uses violence in the ring to negotiate his loneliness outside the arena, and his past is littered with the bodies of the vanquished. But unlike Walt, Randy recognizes that redemption isn't possible, either through his family or an honest day's work. Randy's estranged daughter does not welcome his lame overtures with the unlikely kindness of Walt's Hmong neighbors, and his part-time gig behind a deli counter is alienating--the store even puts his real name, Robin, on the name tag. He knows his macho mythology is deflated, but it's all he's got. Walt thinks his fall is a purification. Randy knows that his own fall, a de facto suicide achieved through the execution of his trademark move, a diving elbow-drop called the Ram Jam, is a capitulation.
In the closing scene of Gran Torino, a lawyer reads from the dead man's will, which Walt had written himself. It turns out that he had chosen to bequeath the titular totem of middle-class luxury to Thao, "on the condition that you don't chop-top the roof like one of those beaners, don't paint any idiotic flames on it like some white trash hillbilly and don't put a big gay spoiler on the rear end like you see on all of the other zipperheads' cars." In other words, Walt gets to keep his racial epithets and be the hero, too. The closing credits roll over a shot of Thao cruising in his new vehicle of assimilation, with Eastwood's raspy voice cooing gently on the soundtrack, reminding the next generation just who we have to thank for our liberty.
The traditional Eastwood hero--and Clint, for all his bluster, has never played a villain--spends an inordinate amount of time pushing other people away, only to grudgingly accept the perseverant embrace of the outside world, as long as the world is defined exclusively in terms of his suffering. If Eastwood is to be credited for artistic and emotional growth, his mythic doppelgängers must learn to accept a love that asserts itself without conditions. He has publicly reduced his political credo to "everyone leaves everyone else alone." That philosophy is a reason to become a hermit. It's a reason to vote for regressive taxation and Second Amendment rights. It's not a reason to make movies.