Everything I’ve done in my life since college has been completely accidental. All I wanted to do, pretty much from the first time I could get into R-rated movies, was be a film critic. (It’s the main reason I went to the University of Illinois: Roger Ebert went there.) Because the movie criticism career never quite got on track, I’ve decided to write about movies here. Feel free to skip; I’m only being self-indulgent. These will take the format of my Wrestler piece for NY mag: Five things you need to know.
1. Clint Eastwood is 78 years old. This is older than I realized, even though actors always seem younger than they really are, by nature and by definition. (Gene Hackman is also 78, though he’ll always seem about 45 to me.) His character in Gran Torino fought in the Korean War, which actually means he’s probably a little bit older than 78. The thing about Eastwood is that he’s always seemed old; his face was weathered and withered in A Fistful of Dollars, and he was 34 then. This works against him in Gran Torino, because even though it’s clearly meant as a career capper of a performance, it seems like he’s had a few already. He was going to retire after Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (until that film flopped), Million Dollar Baby, The Bridges Of Madison County (still his best performance) and Unforgiven, which was the Big Statement About Clint Eastwood and is now 16 years old. Yes, Unforgiven is now old enough to drive. The question is worth asking: As important a presence as Clint Eastwood has been in the history of film, how many crowning curtain calls does one man get?
2. It’s worth bringing up because I’m not sure Eastwood knows how normal people live anymore. The details about his character — he’s obsessed with his garage and his car, he has his war metals in the basement, he drinks and tells dirty jokes down at the VFW — feel right, but that’s because they felt right 25 years ago. But no one else in this movie makes a lick of sense. I suppose it’s possible that downtown Detroit still has an Italian barber who shaves with a straight razor, charges $10 for a haircut, has only one client and carries a shotgun next to his chair … but I doubt it. In this movie’s universe, every street is rife with rival gangs who cruise around all day merely waiting to harass the innocents with their lawlessness. The gangs in this movie don’t exist to run drugs or shake people down; their only job, it appears, is to shoot up people’s front lawns. This isn’t the way the country is today, not even in Detroit.
3. This is not to detract from the pleasure of Eastwood’s performance; he’s always more fun when he’s joking than when he’s serious. (The best parts of Million Dollar Baby are him bantering with Morgan Freeman.) Sure, it might be an obvious joke to have Eastwood’s character spit chaw in front of an Asian woman who then expectorates twice his amount, but he still sells it nicely. Eastwood’s face is a character of its own. Even a cocked eyebrow or a slight grin works wonders. If he weren’t “retiring” “again,” I’d watch a movie simply of Eastwood talking to himself in a mirror.
4. Eastwood’s decision to cast his Asian neighbors with amateurs was a huge mistake. Whatever realism using non-actors might bring to your film — and I’m not sure why this was necessary; the movie’s taking place in Detroit, for crying out loud. We have tons of capable Asian American actors here — it’s lost by having key supporting characters played by people with no range beyond “Young Asian.” Eastwood asks far too much of his young actors, requiring them to stretch in ways they’re not capable of. It might sound nice to cast unknown Bee Vang to play the troubled youth Eastwood takes under his wing, but then you have to either give him simple things to do or provide him direction when you need him to hit emotional high notes. Eastwood is not that kind of director; filming scenes in two hours and then breaking for lunch might work with Gene Hackman and Morgan Freeman, but it’s not gonna work with Bee Vang. Eastwood strands his actors, and they suffer for it: They’re all pretty awful.
5. Not that it matters, in Eastwood’s view, because this is HIS movie. It is Dirty Harry meets Josey Wales meets Bill Munny meets every nameless Spaghetti Western drifter, all thrown in a blender with a dash of get-off-my-lawn racism tossed in. For a guy who’s supposedly as taciturn as his character is here, Eastwood sure does like to map out all the “changes” he’s going through. This is Eastwood’s deconstruction (again: They said the same thing about Unforgiven) of his whole career, and it doesn’t give anything else in the movie any room to breathe. Watching Eastwood direct a “gang” “battle” is like those awkward scenes in mid-90s Woody Allen movies when all college protagonists couldn’t help chattering about how much they loved Count Basie and the Brooklyn Dodgers. There is no other character in this movie than Eastwood’s Walt Kowalski. And good for him. Eastwood has earned the right to do another self-referential riff on his legend. It’s nice to see him. But it doesn’t make his movie any less insufferable, nonsensical and, all told, embarassing.