Archies & Meatheads: Gran Torino, Silent Light, Defiance
By Fernando F. Croce

Celebrated as the Last of the Classicists, Clint Eastwood is closer to president of the Aging Actors-Auteurs Club. Like fellow members Woody Allen and Jerry Lewis, no subject obsesses him more than his screen persona, the flinty, grizzled old-school individualist molded by Leone and Siegel and subsequently celebrated/deconstructed by himself in films like High Plains Drifter, White Hunter, Black Heart and Unforgiven. Changeling, Eastwood’s previous film, failed primarily because he could not get inside the mind of Angelina Jolie’s character; Gran Torino, his newest, puts his iconic baggage back in front of the camera, and, if not a much better movie, it’s a considerably more interesting one. Walt Kowalski, the wizened blue-collar widower he plays here, ponders his flabby, grabby relatives and a baby-faced priest’s sermon on life and death, and doesn’t bother to mask his growling contempt. "What do we do with him," one son murmurs to another. The old folk’s home is tactlessly suggested, but he prefers to stand his ground in the Detroit suburbs, polishing his vintage rifle on his porch, shooting loving glances at his car (the ‘72 chrome beauty of the title), and scowling at the kids today. Ah, the kids, with their bellybutton piercings and text messaging and different skin colors... A Hmong family lives next door, so Kowalski, stretched Archie Bunker that he is, leaves no slur unturned: It’s "gooks" this and "swamp rats" that and "ding-dongs" and "zipper heads" on down. The neighbors’ immigrant grandmother is just as cranky (and can even best him in tobacco-spitting), yet when he repels some local gangbangers ("We used to stack fucks like you in Korea like sandbags," he rasps to one thug), he becomes their reluctant white god.

At a party, a Hmong shaman sizes up the tough old soldier: "You are not at peace." Like most of Eastwood’s films, Gran Torino works best when exposing the rattled nerves under the superstar pose. Some of the richest bits flow from his understanding of the ludicrous comedy of Gramps as a badass -- it’s easily his funniest film since Heartbreak Ridge, and Kowalski’s attempts at giving the timid kid next door (Bee Vang) some backbone are blunt burlesques of masculine rituals (the "manly" thing to do, he says, is to bitch about the guys at work getting on your ass). As for the continuous flow of ethnic insults, the film insists that it stems not from hate but from the coot’s supposedly lovable anachronism. (That’s bullshit, of course, but at least the crusty bigot doesn’t undergo a Paul Haggis-style reform at the end.) In any case, it’s less about racial differences than about how little they mean in the face of honor, grace, death, etc. Here’s Eastwood at his most archetypal (holding a gun under the American flag) and with his guard completely down (shaken and tearful, in the dark with bloodied knuckles). This perpetual tug-of-war between the flattering and the questioning of a persona is never resolved, and turns downright risible as Kowalski is ultimately steered toward Eastwood’s own Stations of the Cross fantasy, scored to portentous drums out of The Wild Bunch. And yet, I was reminded of Andrew Sarris’ words about Chaplin in Limelight: "For an artist, to envision his own death means to envision the death of the entire world." Of a piece with Eastwood’s sepulchral twilight works of pale light and deep shadows, it’s less a great film than a fascinating personal testament.

*

Just as Eastwood has been dutifully honored as an old master, so has Carlos Reygadas been prematurely promoted as a young master. Japón and Battle in Heaven, the Mexican director’s previous efforts, show astounding stylistic control and political provocation, but his latest one, Silent Light, feels largely like a blooper. The setting is a remote Mennonite household, where the patriarch Johan (Cornelio Wall) is torn between his wife Esther (Miriam Toews) and his neighbor Marianne (Maria Pankratz); a halted clock pendulum early on situates the drama squarely in Ordet country, and the rest proceeds toward a literal bit of heartbreak and, since "medical science doesn’t have all the answers," a climax of shoved-in transcendence. For sheer visual pleasure, Silent Light scintillates. The bravura opening sequence, a spiraling tableau that accumulates a thousand gradations of light as dawn materializes on the prairie of Chihuahua, has been deservedly dotted over, but virtually every scene -- every widescreen-composed shot -- is imbued with evocative sublimity, from kids playing in a stream to cows entering a milk plant to a drive in the rain to deathly whites and verdant greens joining as reflections on a window pane. After a while, however, the capital-B beauty starts turning gelatinous and the old stomach rebels. For all of Reygadas’ beard-stroking over blades of grass and solar flares, he’s ruinously removed from the emotional and spiritual states of the characters. With most of the filmmaker’s resources spent on prim aestheticism, the miracles that follow feel perfunctory and stiff-backed, affecting mainly to groupies of Paul Schrader’s critical theories. One passage moves: Johan’s visit to his father (Peter Wall), who suddenly sees his young self in his son’s quandary ("It’s inexplicable. But I understand"). Reygadas is a huge talent but I hope he ditches spirituality, because, preaching Dreyer’s cinematic religion, he sounds just like Elmer Gantry.

*

Defiance is a mild improvement over Edward Zwick’s previous didactic dramas in that its protagonist is at least part of the oppressed culture being portrayed rather than an outsider who gets enlightened (Broderick in Glory, Cruise in The Last Samurai, DiCaprio in Blood Diamond). Of course, the filmmakers hedge their bets by casting blond, blue-eyed, British-accented Daniel Craig as a Russian Jew in 1941 Belorussia, but, hey, if you’re fighting Nazis you want James Bond on your side, am I right? Craig is part of a group of brothers whose parents were killed as the Germans drive into the country; after exacting revenge, he leads a community of refugees into the woods while his brother (Liev Schreiber) joins the Red Army’s guerillas. The tone is desaturated gravity, the action is smudged, the Old Testament parables subtle as anvils ("God will not part these waters! We will do it ourselves"). It’s the film’s tough luck that I’ve recently seen Elem Klimov’s purposefully barbarous Come and See, where the idea of fighting back invaders is a dim fantasy and the most humane act on the battlefield is to shoot prisoners rather than burn them. Zwick’s idea of defiance, meanwhile, includes a book-reading wuss who's ennobled by shrapnel and lines like "Your Jewish sentimentality is heartwarming, but counter-revolutionary." Munich’s spot at the list of Seth Rogen’s "Jews kicking ass" list is totally safe.

Reviewed January 20, 2009

Back to Archives
Back Home