For two decades, Clint Eastwood has shrewdly resisted making one more Dirty Harry movie: Another cartoon vigilante picture wouldn’t fit in with his Golden Years status as an American Master who continues to evolve, revising his old meathead-genre tropes in ways that compel some auteurists to invoke the names of Dante and Shakespeare. But Gran Torino is his final Dirty Harry movie manqué. His hero, Walt, is the same Cro-Magnon right-wing vigilante racist, but this time, like Prospero in The Tempest, the old man is poised to abjure his magic (his magic Magnum) for the sake of the greater good. The movie is ludicrous, but Eastwood’s consistency is poignant. He has an agenda and sticks to it.
He ought to have let someone else direct him, though—his acting is all over the map. At his finest, he delivers thesis lines, the ones about how terrible it is to kill a man—as Walt did in Korea—with the subtle but insistent quaver of a great jazz musician filling a measure to bursting: His day wasn’t made after all. But most of his readings would be too broad for even the movies he made with farting orangutans. From his porch, Walt surveys the big family of Asian-Americans (Hmong) who live next door, and Eastwood twists up his mouth and growls that all the real Americans have moved away and hocks a goober on the lawn. “Grrrrr … goddamned slopes … hwick-pitooey.” He upstages Walt’s dog, who is mostly quiet.
The script, by Nick Schenk, requires the just-widowed Walt to discover a new—and better—family in those “slopes,” to commit to them in ways he could never commit to his sons or overly entitled grandkids. So he teaches the boy (Bee Vang) to swear, hurl racial expletives, and pick up pretty girls. He gives him manly discipline. (“You know something, kid? You’re all right.”) And he lets his softer side come out under the probing of the boy’s sassy sister (Ahney Her). Amid the culture-clash jokes, a higher symbolism creeps in. When the family is imperiled by an Asian gang, Walt responds in his macho-vigilante way—then seems to realize that, as with the Vietnamese and Cambodians and Laotians the Americans supposedly fought for, he has made their lives even more violent.
The problem is that for all Eastwood’s twilight-of-life ambivalence about his own mythical persona, his is still a paranoid universe of predators and the preyed-upon, so there’s never a need for distracting shades of gray or the kind of every-man-has-his-reasons drama in every episode of The Wire. These are simpleminded moral dilemmas, and the scenes with the Asian gang are almost as crude as anything in Sudden Impact. To think Gran Torino is a masterpiece, you have to accept the contrived setups and sledgehammer melodrama. You have to grade the movie on that same meathead-vigilante curve. As Harry once said, “Man's got to know his limitations," and Eastwood has a gift for making his look like brave artistic choices.
Darren Aronofsky is our most brilliantly druggy filmmaker: His syntax transforms to match his characters’ feverish perceptions—to pull you into their radically altered states. The nature of the drug is different in every movie: swirling and fractured in Pi, transcendentally romantic in The Fountain. In his new film, The Wrestler, he induces a state of masochistic ecstasy—the oneness with the universe that comes from being pummeled and cut and watching one’s blood fly onto the canvas. The tragic hero is Randy “the Ram” Robinson (Mickey Rourke), an aging pro-wrestler, once a star, with nothing real in his life but that Artaudian Theater of Cruelty in which men in mythically garish costumes perform brutal ballets before shrieking crowds. Beside Aronofsky’s bouts, the ones in Raging Bull seem like Japanese tea ceremonies. No matter how choreographed, the pounding is ferocious, and we see the world through Randy’s swimming perceptions. Even cringing, we feel his joy. He secretes a small razor in his costume and, down for the count, slices open his face to make the gore even splashier. We rise with him in triumph: I bleed, therefore I am.
The movie isn’t as world-shattering as those bouts: It’s a regretful-old-warrior weeper, in which God’s loneliest man attempts to reconcile with the bitter child (Evan Rachel Wood) he abandoned and reaches out to the only woman who shows him affection—a stripper (the ever-comely Marisa Tomei) who has the grace not to let him see her eyes wander in search of other lap-dance customers. We know that even if he touches the stripper’s heart and breaks through his daughter’s anger, he’ll screw it up because, after all, he’s only good for one thing in life, even if it kills him. Allusions to Christ are everywhere; the stripper talks about the carnage in The Passion of the Christ. Is Aronofsky being tongue in cheek? I don’t think he’s ever tongue in cheek.