PAGE TO SCREEN: “Gran Torino” by Nick Schenk

Posted by · 10:58 am · September 9th, 2008

Page to Screen at In Contention“I didn’t buy all this stuff blockhead.  I’ve lived here for fifty years.  A man stays in one place long enough he tends to attract a decent set of tools.”

There are a lot of admirable things about “Gran Torino,” a simple yarn precariously told by screenwriter Nick Schenk.  It wallows unforgiveably in the bigotry of its central character, Walt Kowalski (to be played by Clint Eastwood), pushing that boundry to laughable distances at times.  But thematically, it works.

Walt hates gooks, chinks, slopes, call the Asians who’ve moved onto his block what you will.  He’s a Pabst-chugging, VFW-trolling, inner-child- and soft-undberlly-suffocating ex-military man with a chip on his shoulder for religion and a dysfunctional relationship with his children.  He’s pretty standard, by all indications.

We come into Walt’s life at the funeral for his deceased wife, Dorothy, and we’re given the immediate indication that this won’t be a weeping widower.  Walt looks on as a fresh-faced preacher hangs a string of fancy words out over the crowd, and in ironic disgust he can only mutter, “Jesus.”

When a Hmong family moves next door, it seems to be the last straw for Walt, who has watched the neighborhood’s decline for a number of years.  His house is pristine amid the rubble of homes unkempt by their Asian inhabitants, so it’s one more log for his racist fire.

The thematic thread woven into the character from the start is Walt as the fixer.  A former Ford employee of 30 years, Walt’s prized posession is the 1972 Gran Torino sitting under a tarp in his garage.  He has a tool collection to rival a small construction outlet and is persistent with maintenance and upkeep.  The tendency drifts to the people in his life as well, always finding a solution to whatever he perceives as a problem.  It’s the workhorse in him — even if, ultimately, he won’t be able to fix himself.

Tao, one of the new neighbors, is a teen-aged boy at an all-too-familiar crossroads, and the way of the gun is close to winning the battle for his soul.  Hmong gangbangers, as Schenk so eloquently describes them, own the turf of Walt’s neighborhood now, getting in the occasional scuffle with equally barbaric Latino chollos, if you will.  The Hmongs recruit Tao to their gang and his initiation ends in a failed attempt at stealing Walt’s baby out of the garage, a scene that ends with Walt leveling a WWII-era rifle in Tao’s face and damned-near making the boy piss himself.

“Thug life” isn’t for Tao, so he tries to get out…but things are never that simple.

Meanwhile, Walt makes a friendly acquaintance in Sue, Tao’s sister.  A “wigger” (Schenk’s word, not mine — however petty) dating girl with a bright future, Walt takes a liking to her feisty demeanor and the fact that she clearly has a good head on her shoulders.  One thing leads to another, Walt quite gallantly defends Tao from the Hmong gangbangers, the Asian families consider him a hero, etc.  But a sense of dread is always hanging over the story, and as it drifts toward a heart-breaking if predictable denouement, it at least tries to stay fresh along the way.

In many ways, “Gran Torino” and its main character recalls “Million Dollar Baby.”  There are similar themes and plot points along the way, to be sure.  But as trite as “Baby” was, “Gran Torino” deserves some sort of medal for how hackneyed its ideas are.  That said, one cannot disregard the fact that Clint Eastwood found something in this script that he wanted to work with on the big screen, and he’s proven time and again that he can find depth in the shallowest of examples.  What’s more, there is real potential here.

As Walt Kowalski, I expect Eastwood will more than entertain, depending on how much of the blatant slurs make the transition from page to screen.  He’s got an unforgivable, essentially ignorant and tactless approach to everyone around him and he’s not about to shy away from telling you how he feels.  These elements make his one or two emotionally wrenching scenes really soar, which could give the actor the stage for one hell of a showcase.

I can’t be sure who has been cast as Tao, but whoever gets the role will find himself in the envious position of sharing a lot of screen time with Eastwood.  The interaction between the two characters is a great fit as Walt helps Tao get away from “the life” and man up with some constructional skills, despite his attempt at grand theft auto.

This is a very intriguing choice for Eastwood as a director following the release of “Letters from Iwo Jima” two years ago.  One almost wonders if lingering empathy from his experiences on that film drove him to “Gran Torino” despite its flaws.  Whatever the case, he should be able to elevate the material from its modest origins and bring it into a relevant light.  He’s done it before and I’m sure he’ll do it again.  And as always, this isn’t someone you count out at this time of year.

At the end of the day, “Gran Torino” could rack up nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor and, because Eastwood has a tendency to make those around him look better than they are, Best Original Screenplay.  But let’s face it — any other director and it would probably not be held in such anticipatory esteem.  Hell, you might not even be reading these words…

→ 18 Comments Tags: , , , | Filed in: Page to Screen

18 responses so far

  • 1 9-09-2008 at 3:53 pm

    Jonathan Spuij said...

    Clint = King. This movie will be no difference.

  • 2 9-09-2008 at 4:58 pm

    James De Roxtra said...

    I am so tired of Clint. He can be merely adequate and get a nomination in whatever picture he directs himself in, because only when he casts himself do people fool themselves into believing he was one of the year’s Top 5.

    And it wouldn’t surprise me if pandering dreck like this knocked out something more worthy, as infuriating as it would be. I just hate his whole “hide this movie and every detail about it until the last minute” strategy. So I’m hoping that, for just once, it backfires. Just once. Please.

  • 3 9-09-2008 at 5:08 pm

    Kit Stolz said...

    This sounds to me like a “Dirty Harry” character thirty or forty years down the road. It’s way too soon to judge either its quality or its prospects, if you ask me, but I can understand what Eastwood saw in the character.

  • 4 9-10-2008 at 1:37 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    I find it difficult to get excited about this, particularly with Clint in front of the camera again — I personally thought his performance in “Million Dollar Baby” was the film’s greatest limitation.

    I have a hunch the Academy may pass on him this year.

  • 5 10-22-2008 at 8:38 am

    Pulovski78 said...

    ¿GRAN TORINO?,the next Academy award for the Best actor in a leading role.No doubt.

  • 6 1-05-2009 at 10:51 am

    Rick said...

    By “unforgivable,” I believe you mean to use the word “unapologetic.”

    As in “[Kowalski’s] got an [unapologetic], essentially ignorant and tactless approach…” and “It wallows [unapologetically] in the bigotry of its central character…”

  • 7 1-05-2009 at 10:57 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    No, I meant unforgivable. Though unapologetic, if I wanted the sentence to mean something it doesn’t, would just as easily fit.

  • 8 1-07-2009 at 9:34 pm

    Scott A. said...

    I read a lot of scripts for work, I can say in all honesty that Schenk’s screenplay is laughably bad, the work of a writer with no ear for dialogue between members of the human race. (Walt’s unremitting racial slurs are never “shocking”, it just grows tired fast — you can only hear “gook” and “zipperhead” (eventually shortened to “zip” — I’d never even heard of the expression until now) so many times before it loses any effect — wait for the time Walt drops “Eggroll” in the mix. The barbershop scene where Walt coaches Tao on the way men communicate was plain awful. Judging from the scene where Sue and her (sigh) “wigger” friend get harassed, Schenk has never met a black person, either. Note that Eastwood / Schenk won’t sacrifice the audience’s goodwill towards Walt by using any epithets towards the black youths — instead, he turns on the white kid who *mimics* blacks (but looks like he stepped out of 1994…)) The non-Eastwood acting is exceptionally amateur hour, Clint’s performance is all over the map, and the less said about his vocal performance over the closing credits, the better. The critical circle jerk over GRAN TORINO brings to mind mass-hypnosis. Certainly one of the weakest big studio offerings in a fairly poor year for cinema.

  • 9 1-09-2009 at 5:45 pm

    Vincent said...

    Is it really easier to join the minority of critics who want to slam Gran Torino rather than accept the fact that this is a great film?

    When I saw this in the theater, the other films playing were Bride Wars, The Tale of Despereaux, and some other schlocky releases that I’ve put out of mind. None of them hold a candle to Gran Torino.

    This film accomplished what so few do these days: it moved the audience. From the moment the film started rolling, the viewers were totally engaged. Eastwood’s ability to have the audience laughing uproariously one moment, only to have them gripping their seat handles in suspense in the next, and finally to shedding tears a moment later, is nothing short of extraordinary.

    I’ll admit I haven’t read the script, so I can’t comment on the tyro writer’s work firsthand. However, I always wonder whether the negative remarks are truly deserved, or whether they are just the sour grapes of some film school graduate who is green with envy as he settles down to his Macbook after a hard day of serving grande soy chai tea lattes, while Schenk sits back and watches his first script not only sell, but garner critical acclaim. Regardless, in Eastwood’s capable hands, the script was marvelously brought to life on the screen. Highly recommended!

  • 10 1-12-2009 at 5:29 pm

    Marcy said...

    I had looked forward to seeing this movie ever since I learned it was coming out last year. Finally watched it at home (Academy Screener) Friday night, and I truly enjoyed myself. Clint’s portrayal of a bitter, racist widower who had lost the sole mitigating influence in his life, was spot-on. My father fought in WWII, and brought home with him some deeply ingrained prejudices he never lost. While my Dad’s language was never as heavily peppered with racist commentary – at least, not around people he didn’t know – he certainly possessed the exact same vocabulary. Clint’s Walt simply doesn’t have any ‘stop’ in the form of his recently deceased wife, to scold him for running off at the mouth. He’s a man set adrift in his twilight, who begins to catch glimpses of an alternate reality he’d steadfastly ignored or kept at lawn’s length.

    Yes, it is a simple tale with a simple moral and at times, simply ham-handed acting. Thankfully, those moments of bad acting are far enough apart that they never build enough momentum to truly annoy. I very much enjoyed Gran Torino, and will absolutely be adding the DVD to the collection when it comes out. Thank you, Mr. Eastwood. You have provided me with quite a few of my favorite movies over the years.

  • 11 3-04-2009 at 6:18 am

    Scott A. said...

    I’ll be the first to admit that the tastes of critics often don’t mirror that of the general public, and that, but are you actually suggesting, Vincent, that the 20% of critics on Rotten Tomatoes whose reviews came out against the film are just wrong? That we are all embittered and jealous failed screenwriters ourselves? Is there no room for discourse?

    Again, I read scripts as a job. I have my tastes, as do we all, and mine tend to steer clear of films / scripts as on-the-nose as GRAN TORINO, where every character tends to say exactly what they are thinking, and everything that happens serves only to further the plot. No subtlety, no ambiguity. Scripts and films like that offend me, because in my opinion, they show a lack of craft, and respect for the audience’s intelligence. The audience is basically being told in bold letters how to think and feel about every caricature on screen. For example, note how nobody in Walt’s family appears to be mourning the death of their mother / grandmother at her funeral, never allowed to break from their one-dimensional characters, griping about “the old man”, checking texts, popping gum. You didn’t find that jarring? In every scene, every character seems to operate within rigid parameters — the bad black guy, the racist barber, the greedy grand-daughter. Of course, people are very seldom so shallow in real life — as Marcy says above, Walt seemed to embody a (single) facet of her father’s nature. Nobody in GRAN TORINO particularly resembled a real, flesh-and-blood person. We are all too complicated to be written in such broad strokes.

    If demanding a higher standard from a film / script puts me in the minority, so be it. But I wouldn’t chalk it up to some personal defect, Vincent. Nice profiling job, though — are *you* a writer?

  • 12 3-03-2011 at 5:56 am

    Jacquie said...

    Wow, I read the earlier comments. They’re full of pretentious claptrap. ‘Over Clint’? People relish his movies because he’s part of a bygone era of golden filmmaking. You know, the era in which they created, rather than remade films. Gran Torino is an excellent film and shame on you nobodies slamming both it and its director/actor before even viewing it. Go make your own ‘Oscar worthy’ film if you’re such experts. BTW, given the Oscars are as rigged as a sailboat, who cares which films win what awards?