Magness Lake, in Heber Springs, is a magnet for swans
If you ever wanted to see the world the way a crotchety old racist sees the world, then you're lucky that they're still letting Clint Eastwood make films. Hell, they're encouraging the man. (Not that Eastwood himself is a racist, but he certainly has sympathy for one.) The show I attended was packed, and I find extremely troubling the idea that the majority of attendees seemed to be sated by and even possibly enjoyed the film. “Gran Torino” is cartoonish in its hamhandedly “sympathetic” portrayals, reprehensible in its worldview, laughable in its narrative choices and gratuitous in its use of ethnic and racial slurs. Not one person in this awful movie ever existed or ever will.
Eastwood plays a reactionary holdover, a vestigial white man occupying an increasingly ethnic neighborhood in the Midwest. Overrun by immigrants, his street lined with ill-kept facades and overgrown hedges, he sits on his front porch and stews, his ears steaming. Next door, a Hmong family — one of a countless number chased by fear of death out of their war-torn homelands — has let their yard go to pot. His reaction? A non-stop string of epithets and hate, driven home by his tendency to draw guns on anyone silly enough to invade his space.
“Get off of my lawn,” he growls, brandishing a 50-year-old service rifle, and we're supposed to believe he's not kidding.
Of course, all this hate can't go unchecked. A series of increasingly unlikely events finds him drawn close to the Hmong family, adopting the youngest son and teaching him ... What? How to work on the yard for a gruff and dusty old white asshole? How to swallow those unrelenting slurs with a shit-eating grin on his face? The film never once makes us feel uncomfortable with its casual racism, always playing stray slurs for laughs, even vindicating such language in its tough-talking badass scenes. Eastwood's character is never given a single reason to stop being so damn sure of himself, and his imaginary antagonists always satisfy him by behaving exactly the way he expects them to act.
I don't believe for a second that old fart could behave the way he did and have gone long without getting his ass plugged or at least hospitalized, but believability is the least worrying of this film's manifold offenses. The most troubling aspect of this film is its outright refusal to challenge the audience. Never did the chuckling idiot behind me have to wonder why he found the word “Zipperhead” so funny. Never once did he trouble himself over the long-term effects of hate speech. Never once did his predilection to separate “the good ones” from “the bad ones” get turned on its head.
The only thing, save food, that seems to unite Eastwood's spiteful bigot to his identity-neutered neighbors is his conservatism — more specifically, his intolerance. He's beholden to some imaginary and dying world, where everyone knows their place, and that place is only in relation to others. He's like an insidious Okonkwo, the tragic and ambiguous hero of Chinua Achebe's “Things Fall Apart,” only his ultimate martyrdom is to a false way of life, a way of life content to trade ethnic slaughter for weedless sidewalks. He does what he does for his new ethnic pets because the filmmakers truly believe that this is the only possible world. Thank God that this is not so.