Tuesday, February 10, 2009


I was riding through Egypt and my guide was waxing eloquent about Clint Eastwood. He loved the Dirty Harry and spaghetti Western movies he had made. My druthers would be for the more serious Eastwood-- the Eastwood who directed such classics as Bird, or the recent excellent movie "The Changeling", or some of his war flicks.

But Clint Eastwood is an icon that transcends genres and it truly boggles my mind that whilst he has already won a Best Actor award for Gran Torino, he wasn't even nominated for an Oscar for this role, which in my mind may be the best (and some say will be his last) acting job he has ever done. Gran Torino is one hours and 56 minutes of morality play, with the two central figures being the young Catholic priest and Mr. Kowalski, not exactly an enthusiastic church attender. It raises important questions about life and death, and how we should view those two verities or imposters, and at the same time raises equally important issues about racism and overcoming it when one sees the true humanity of the 'Other', and when one realizes the 'Other' is also one's neighbor.

The story of "Gran Torino" is set in the rust belt, in this case Michigan, and Mr. Kowalski continues to live in his old neighborhood which has now largely been taken over by Orientals. Walt Kowalski, Korean Vet that he is, has the expected prejudices about such people. He has just lost his wife and wishes to be left alone, but somehow his neighbors who are Hmungs, keep impinging on his life and Walt begins to see them as in some ways preferrable to his own children who hardly even visit him, and whom he simply pushes away with his gruff manner and the usual expletives. But lurking inside that tough as nails demeanor is a real human being that needs to get some monkey's off his back (and when you hear them in the confessional, they are surprisingly few) and one expects that he will be delibrately adding to his sin list thereafter as well.

The Vietnamese/Cambodian neighbors are remarkably friendly, and Walt gets caught up in their lives, not least because there is a Hmung gang which keeps bothering the brother and sister and their whole family who are his neighbors. Walt, must figure out a way to put a stop to the gang, and the issues is forced when the sister is raped and beaten by the gang. Along the way, Walt tries to help the brother grow up and become a man. But what does that entail? Does it entail returning fire for fire, bullets for bullets? Walt doesn't want Tao (the brother) involved in such violence. Though their relationship began badly when Tao tried to 'boost' Walt's prize 1972 Gran Torino, it goes uphill thereafter.

This movie is rated R due to some of the language and violence (though there is actually surprisingly little of that for an Eastwood film). I can actually recommend this film as a fine study in morality, honesty, overcoming racism, learning to be a neighbor, and even self-sacrificial behavior. Though there is an apparent similarity between Mr. Kowalski and 'Randy Ram Robinson' (aka the star of The Wrestler), in that both go out on their own terms, the comparison between the two, and the two movies ends there.

"The Wrestler" has been universally praised as the great return to form of Mickey Roarke and also Marissa Tomei and indeed both do a remarkable job of embodying their roles as wrestler and erstwhile stripper. This movie in fact gets almost the maximum rating one has ever seen for a movie (98% after many reviews) whereas Gran Torino clocks in at 77%. Whilst 'The Wrestler' is indeed gritty and gives one the real feel of the life of a self-confessed "broken down ole piece of meat" (AKA an old wrestler over the hill and on fumes), so much so that the movie is deliberately filmed with a grainy look and spares nothing in depicting the gore of even 'fake' championship wrestling where people do indeed get hurt, this movie does not in any way have the heart or 'redeeming value' of 'Gran Torino'.

Randy 'Ram Jet Robinson, goes out on his own terms which means turning his back on his daughter and even on a woman he really cares about in order to hear the adulation of the crowd and please them one more time. The movie accurately portrays what a fickle mistress fame is, and fading glory.

By contrast, Walt Kowalski comes across as a self-sacrificial saint in comparison to Mr. Robinson, one who goes out helping others. In the end the best thing about "The Wrestler" is the poignant theme song Springsteen wrote for the movie, as in the end one feels very little sorrow for "Ram" and the movie, while striving for pathos, never quite gets there.

Gran Torino also has a fine theme song, composed by Eastwood with the help of Jamie Cullum, a Brit jazz pianist and vocalist of some note. Both movies end with the theme played for the first time and do sum up the films rather well. One produces only pity for "one trick pony" the other real tears, wishing one could have known better Walt Kowalski.

To be clear and succinct. I do not recommend "the Wrestler" for Christian families or Christians of any kind (not least because there is too much time spent in strip clubs in this film). Though Gran Torino has some language issues, it hardly deserves the R rating it got and I do commend it to mature Christian persons looking for the answer to the question that lawyer asked Jesus long ago--- "and who precisely is my neighbor?" This is the film that should have gotten the Academy nominations 'the Wrestler' got.



Oscar T. G. said...

Ok, I've seen both films and reviewed them both on my own website, www.oscarsflickpicks.com and I have to say that both films deserved recognition, but in different areas.

Although "The Wrestler" was rather gritty, it was only Mickey Roarke's performance that deserved recognition. No, there was no redeeming virtue to the man, Randy "The Ram" Robinson (NOT Ram Jet as you noted), but his character WAS a great study in selfishness, the totally depraved man who defiles those closest to him. The movie was not made to make people feel good, and it surely doesn't.

"Gran Torino", in contrast, probably deserved some sort of recognition although I can't for the life of me think in what area. Possible directing or screenplay. Eastwood's character was Dirty Harry at end of life. Same sneer, same attitude, but with a resignation about the closing scene of life.

His performance was not extraordinary, it was Eastwood steady and dependable. His costars displayed the amateurish acting expected from amateurs, and for me it was slightly distracting. Also some of the plot twists were telegraphed so strongly that the viewer could tell what was coming next. And maybe that is why people liked the movie, it required very little foresight up until the end.

Overall I liked the movie. It was "safe".

Of the two movies, I have to agree about one thing, "The Wrestler" is probably not recommended for those who are easily influenced, those who have been raised in the church, or those who are offended by nudity. But I can't say that NO Christian should see it, even though not many will anyway.

"Gran Torino", on the other hand, is "safe" for most Christians in its subject matter AND in the bittersweet ending. Only the most sensitive will be offended by the language, and the morality themes are a redeeming feature. I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it.

And for the record, I have been active in my church as a deacon, Sunday School teacher, home group leader and Worship team member for a total of thirty-three years. I say this as a perspective on my views stated above.

Ben Witherington said...

Fair enough Oscar.


Dan said...

Gran Torino will be a favorite of mine for awhile. The banter that is so blatantly racist, but in the context so funny, was great. It's a great end of life story, but also a story about redemption. The way they used the young priest in the film was great compared to other films who treat Catholic priests as predators or completely out of touch.

John said...

I think your review of Gran Torino is dead-on. I hope this film gets treated better on DVD than it did by movie-goers. It was nothing like I expected it to be when I entered the theaters, but for all the reasons you site, I walked out deeply moved. The film as really stayed with me. In the right setting, I could even see hosting a discussion group in church over the themes of this film.

On a personal note, as a 34 year old serving in pastoral ministry, the interaction between Walt and the priest really rang true to some of my experience. Eastwood really hit the nail on the head.

I haven't much desire to see The Wrestler.

phil said...

Sounds like the title "The Wrestler" would be a good movie title for the life of Jacob.

Corpus Christi Outreach Ministries said...

i plan on seeing them both, wrestler has a special hook for me, it covers some old jersey turf. thanks for the review.