Rourke and Eastwood still have it.

30 December, 2008

I suppose it’s unfair to declare The Wrestler and Gran Torino as simply nostalgia trips starring leading men who are, by Hollywood’s standards, over-the-hill. But the element still exists and one cannot ignore it even when they do more than just reach for the old days. Still, I wanted to kill two reviews with one stone, so the connection will have to do.

The Wrestler is billed as a Darren Aronofsky film but really it’s a Mickey Rourke film. Aronofsky’s contribution to Robert Siegel’s screenplay is to pick up a camera, keep it in his or whoever’s hands throughout the shoot, and stay the hell out of Rourke’s way. Anyone considering acting as a profession owes it to themselves to see this picture for Rourke’s performance. It is one thing to play a fictional character; it is another to play yourself; even if he is credited as “Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson.” Would you be willing to go this far into the depths of your soul to give the performance of your career? Credit is also due for Marisa Tomei who is second chair to Rourke’s solo but is no less fearless and compelling as an aging stripper.

Aside from the performances, it’s the story that is most noteworthy. The trailer indicates a generic tale of redemption in the vein of Rocky but the reality of the film is far more bleak. I was initially underwhelmed by Randy’s attempts to reconcile with his daughter (Evan Rachel Wood), but when that particular thread was wrapped up, I was stunned by how bold Siegel was to end it the way he did. Likewise Randy’s final match which does exactly how you least expect it. Does he win? Does he lose? Just you wait.

I was a little disappointed by the fact that his direction here is little besides hand-held documentary-style filmmaking. Obviously something as erratic as Pi and Requiem for a Dream would be inappropriate for this particular story but I wish he could’ve defined Randy’s world a little clearer. Once again, he employs Clint Mansell to deliver a haunting score which helps shapen the film to an extent, but I still would’ve liked a little more. Aronofsky is supposed to be the director, after all. As I’ve said many times, it’s not enough to just photograph great acting.

Gran Torino proves that you can use the language of film to its fullest potential without losing the story in the style. Now, it must be said that I was initially skeptical of this film after seeing one of the worst trailers I’ve ever encountered, selling Clint Eastwood’s latest opus like one of Sylvester Stallone’s recent nostalgia trips, something Eastwood swore he would never do. But one must always have an open mind about a picture no matter how much the trailer sucks (I will even give The Boat That Rocked a chance when it is released over here.)

The picture is considerably quieter than its ads. The camera moves through the suburban landscape gently and its images are all pleasant enough to exist in generic housekeeping magazines. This is the perfect environment to place Walt Kowalski, Eastwood’s aging anti-hero with rage, racism and plenty of tobacco coursing through his veins. He dislikes the direction his America has taken and the mixing of minorities is only part of the problem, as shown by the utter indifference his grandchildren have towards him and his widow, their grandmother. Therefore, when the Lor family move into the house next door at the start of the picture, the stage is instantly set for the ice in this old codger’s heart to be melted.

As far as the racial element is concerned, this is the picture Crash wanted to be. Thank God Eastwood is also the director since he doesn’t have a maudlin or patronizing bone in his body. Sue and Tao (Ahney Her and Bee Vang), the two kids with whom Kowalski bonds, aren’t just a couple of Asian kids used as foils for the main character. They are every bit as complicated as Kowalski, and in Sue’s case, every bit as intelligent and outspoken. When she inevitably becomes a plot point for the loathsome gang to grow even more loathsome, the development is all the more tragic for that very reason. She is a human being.

As the story developed, the fear that the third act would turn into a gun-toting nostalgia trip for Eastwood started to set in, but Nick Schenk’s screenplay kept surprising me. Some of his dialogue is too expository, and Kowalski’s overly insensitive family needed a little work, but the story and structure are just right. Not an ounce of fat to be seen. In the same way that Unforgiven eulogized the western, Gran Torino eulogizes the good old days when conflicts were simpler and tough guys like Eastwood could settle an issue with just one fight (Using the eponymous title as an appropriate metaphor.) But it also lays to rest the more appalling traditions of the old days like the unquestioned racism implicit in guys like Kowalski, and seems to call into question the need for the simple heroes described above. Unforgiven had to end with a showdown; that was the point. Gran Torino’s ends exactly as it had to despite what the men in suits obviously wanted judging from the posters and trailers.

Eastwood hasn’t lost it. He can still tell a good story but he can also act the hell out of the rest of us. His pervasive growl, akin to Christian Bale’s Batman voice, doesn’t take long to get used to, and when he does let the rage sink in, the histrionics I expected were missing. It is a performance more understated and touching than is given credit for.

Having said that, as you will discover when the credits roll, he cannot sing a note. Please don’t let him do it again. Maybe he can get Springsteen to close out his next film. It worked for the other guy.

One Response to “Rourke and Eastwood still have it.”

  1. Matt Wertheim said

    I utterly agree with you on Gran Torino. I was also especially agonized by Eastwood’s singing at the end. It just didn’t make sense at all to me that they let him do that.

    should have just let Tom Waits sing if they needed a grizzled old man.

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