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Gran Torino

Directed by Clint Eastwood
Certificate 15, 116 minutes

Gran Torino

Clint Eastwood's face has seared itself onto the popular consciousness. We feel like we know him - this iconic figure, who has directed over 30 films, and, more than any other actor working today, can be considered to have created a cinematic archetype: the Man with No Name.

It's strange to note that he has appeared in almost as many contemporary crime thrillers as period westerns; that for every The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, there's a Play Misty for Me. And while you can't say he is not a nuanced performer, each character in his oeuvre carries with it the freight of a certain distance, a loneliness, and a simmering violence, primed to unleash itself if you're the wrong person in the wrong place at the wrong time.

His recent output - from Mystic River to the astonishing anti-war duo Flags of our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima have had critics reaching for superlatives - not just because they are great works of art, but because their moral vision is such a contrast with the portrayal of self-righteous violence on which Eastwood built his career. He even spoke of Mystic River as a kind of apology for the shoot-first-ignore-the-questions-later modus operandi of Dirty Harry. With Gran Torino, the apology becomes a eulogy - decisively laying to rest the ghost of a character whose law enforcement tactics probably reinforced the worst of US xenophobia and retributive justice culture since the 1970s.

Gran Torino is about a man coming to terms with his life slipping away, the trauma he experienced in an old war, and the fact that an eye for an eye leaves everyone blind. His character, Walt Kowalski, might as well have no name - he's a retired Detroit auto worker (even the industry to which he gave his life is dying); he's lost his wife; his neighbourhood is unrecognizable due to what he considers to be the pollution of ethnic migration. But when his neighbours are threatened by gang violence, the old Clint stirs into view. Something must be done. And he's the only person who can do it. But his methods reveal the wisdom of age, the world-weariness that comes from having fired real guns, at real people, and not just engaged the superficial gratification of Grand Theft Auto.

Gran Torino may be the last film Clint Eastwood acts in; and I think it may be the best performance he's ever given; or at least the best from the twilight era of his life. It's remarkable that the endorsement of non-violence in this film comes from man who, when he was my age, was playing characters who shot people dead to get a laugh. Agreeing with the philosophy of a film does not, of course, make it a great movie (there are some obvious wrong notes). But Dirty Harry sleeps now. This film knows that the future of humanity depends on people being able to live together in diversity, putting up with cultural difference, and defending vulnerable members of the community. It also knows something else the Man with No Name and Dirty Harry didn't: violence begets violence; and only non-violence is powerful enough to neutralise it. How Gran Torino presents the terms of conflict, or how it ultimately addresses them, may not be a textbook example of Gandhian resistance, but it's a far cry from 'Go ahead, make my day'. It's a heartbreaking, beautiful film. If it proves to be his last, while I'm greedy for more, I can't imagine a more fitting swan song.

Gareth Higgins