I suppose this is a rather un-American kind of thing to say, but as a director, Clint Eastwood has never been one of my favorite filmmakers.
My big problem with his movies is he decided very early on that he would make subtlety his archnemesis (and don't even get me started on what he did with one of my favorite boxing books to make that "Million Dollar Baby" monstrosity.)
He's back in theaters this week with "Hereafter," and like many of his recent movies, it deals with nothing less than life, death and what might just come after. I'm on the fence about going to see it because it all looks awfully hokey, but I'll probably break down and give it a chance Sunday afternoon.
Here today, however, it's all about one of his recent movies that bucked his hamhanded tendencies and has therefore lingered in my mind for a long time, 2008's "Gran Torino."
As his final role in front of the camera (and to his credit, Eastwood has stood by that claim so far), his role here at first seems like an odd choice to go out with. Walt Kowalski is pretty much the curmudgeon's curmudgeon, an angry old man who time has clearly left behind while at the same time surrounding him with faces that all look very foreign and frightening to him. In anyone else's hands, this role, still hard to watch as it is, would be simply cringeworthy as we watch Walt hurl the most bitter of racial epithets at the Hmong neighbors who have taken over his suburban Detroit neighborhood.
And though we know going in that this will be about Walt's rocky road to redemption, what ultimately makes this movie as surprising as it is entertaining is that it's all handled with grace and as a comedy of manners (or often lack thereof) that goes down smoother and smoother as the movie goes along.
For anyone who missed out on this (and it's well worth a rental, and I believe is still lingering on some Redboxes around town), Eastwood's character slowly develops into what could have been a caricature of his "Dirty Harry" persona but still mostly works as a testament and coda to his long acting career as Walt is forced to come to the defense of two of his young Hmong neighbors who are terrorized by a neighborhood gang.
Within this simple template, Eastwood's tale goes in many different directions. It's in large part a meditation on violence, which in Eastwood's best movies always has very real consequences, but what makes it all so watchable is that he never lets the movie move much beyond what it ultimately is: A very polished B movie about the power of vengeance and what happens when you succumb to it.
And in the end (or at least until the very end), Eastwood's "Gran Torino" is most remarkable for what I usually find to be his directorial efforts' greatest faults: The subtlety with which it delivers the can't-we-all-just-get-along message at its core. It's this that makes "Gran Torino" not only one of the best movies of 2008, but also one of the very best of Eastwood's very long and still going career.