I’ve long been fascinated by Clint Eastwood as a figure who has spent the latter half of his career interrogating the masculine codes that he spent the first half rehearsing. While some have been better than others, Eastwood’s late films (from Unforgiven on) make up a formidable body of work, one that finds him quite consciously (even obsessively) running over the same ground again and again but doing so with the curiosity of an artist rather than the laziness of a hack. Gran Torino was met with mixed reactions when it came out in late 2008, but—as my review from January 2009 shows—I appreciated even those aspects of it that left many other critics spluttering. Unabashedly sentimental and given to moments of old-fashioned conservatism (which in the wake of George H. W. Bush felt downright quaint), Gran Torino was seen by many as a harbinger of Eastwood’s senility; meanwhile, Glenn Kenny was inspired to draw a comparison to the work of Sam Fuller.
“Stephanie Zacharek wrote that Eastwood’s Mystic River ‘is hard-boiled beyond toughness: it's so tender the skin falls away from the bone.’ This evocative turn of phrase could be said to sum up the best of Eastwood’s late films—Unforgiven, Absolute Power, Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, and now Gran Torino, a would-be vigilante story in the vintage Eastwood vein that instead winds up being an elegy for that kind of film and the kind of violent justice it advocates. […] I was intrigued to see the emergence here of themes that resonate across these late films: a haunting secret from the hero’s past, lost or estranged children (and surrogate children), religious guilt, an awareness of what violence does not only to the victim but to the killer. While one could easily criticize Eastwood for revisiting these themes so often, I think they help to unify his work and they’re never handled predictably or cheaply. Each of these films is very much a variation on these same themes, and each works through them with its own narrative elements. These are all beautifully dark, mournful films, and they share this sense of hauntedness, but they also stand alone as great films independent of one another.
“Ideologically, Gran Torino […] is all over the map. One could easily attack the film on the grounds that it is too forgiving of Walt’s racism (which is often played for laughs); that it presents a racist white man as a heroic savior upon whom the Asian figures in the film must rely for protection; that the Asian boy must learn what it means to be a man from a surrogate white father; that it is the fate of the main female character to suffer (see also Million Dollar Baby), and that her suffering exists to provide an impetus for the main character’s salvation. And on and on. But one could just as easily counter these claims with a dozen others that complicate the film’s ideological position. This is, after all, a film in which the aging white male racist finds himself living in a world in which he’s increasingly surrounded by non-white people…and must learn to come to terms with that. It’s also a film that argues staunchly in favor of non-violence, even to what some might call the point of absurdity. And in a film that’s very much about masculinity and Thao’s coming-of-age, Eastwood does not define masculinity in terms of violent confrontation as one might expect; Thao’s real initiation in manhood involves his learning the consequences of violence and impetuosity. Eastwood […] does not organize the film (or any of his others) along clear political lines. The film is remarkably compelling in its ability to take up and consider a variety of highly charged political issues—race, patriotism, violence, vigilante justice—with thoughtfulness and, yes, sensitivity.”